TOPICS > Politics

Cabinet Hearings Continue

January 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee ran out of questions for John Ashcroft by early evening yesterday, allowing him to leave the witness table after a day and a half. Today the Committee heard from a long list of witnesses who spoke for and against confirming Ashcroft to become Attorney General of the United States. The most anticipated was Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White.

JUSTICE RONNIE WHITE, Missouri Supreme Court: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator Hatch, and all members of the Judiciary Committee for inviting me here to testify today. Thank you twice for voting in favor of my nomination to the federal district court in 1999 and 1998.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ronnie White’s nomination to serve on a federal court was endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But when that nomination came up for a final vote in the full Senate, Republicans in the majority rejected it unanimously. It was fellow Missourian, then-Senator John Ashcroft, who led the effort to defeat Ronnie White. Yesterday, Ashcroft repeated his charge that White failed to uphold Missouri’s criminal statutes, including the death penalty. Today, the Judiciary Committee gave White a chance to respond.

JUSTICE RONNIE WHITE: I appreciate this opportunity to tell my story to the United States Senate and to reclaim my reputation as a judge and a lawyer. It will be up to you, members of the Committee, to determine what light this narrative casts on a decision you will make in voting to affirm the next Attorney General of the United States. When I came before this Committee, I was introduced by Senator Kit Bond, who urged my confirmation. Congressman Clay also introduced me and reported to this Committee that Senator Ashcroft had polled my colleagues on the Supreme Court, all of whom he had appointed when he was Governor, and that they spoke highly of me and said I would make an outstanding federal judge. And then I learned that Senator Ashcroft was opposing me. I was very surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me "pro-criminal, with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity"; that he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order. I deeply resent those baseless misreputations. In fact– and I want to say this as clearly as I can– my record belies those accusations. Senator Ashcroft said on the Senate floor that I had a serious bias against the death penalty. According to my records, at the time of my hearing, I had voted to affirm the death penalty in 41 of 59 cases that I had heard. In 10 of the remaining 18 cases, I joined a unanimous court in voting to reverse. In two other reversals, I voted with the court majority. I am proud of my record as a judge. I have lived up to the confidence expressed in me by Governor Carnahan and the people of Missouri. After decades of public service, I come before you today more committed than ever to the rule of law.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Republicans said little to challenge White’s testimony.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I’m happy to have you before the committee and I want you treated fairly as always.

SENATOR: Judge White, thank you very much for coming in. We very much appreciate your testimony and, Mr. Chairman, I do not have any questions.

SPOKESMAN: Thank you, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Democrats, however, including temporary committee chairman Patrick Leahy, lent support to White through their questions.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: You have had a number of death penalty cases that have come before the court. Do you know how often you voted the same way, either to uphold or to remand death penalty cases, how many times you voted in conjunction with those appointed by then-Governor Ashcroft?

JUSTICE RONNIE WHITE: I don’t have the specific numbers, Mr. Chairman, but I believe that it’s about 75% of the time. As the numbers indicate, there were 41 of 56, or 58 cases, where I voted to affirm the death penalty.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Would it surprise you if I told you that a survey done independently finds that you voted with the Ashcroft appointees 95% of the time?

JUSTICE RONNIE WHITE: Well, not really, because there is not that much variation on those death penalty cases.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: So, if you’re so completely out of step, they’re going to be a bit out of step, too. I mean, that’s my point.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York’s Charles Schumer asked White if he thought Ashcroft judged him by a different standard from other nominees to the federal court.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: If you look at the number of judges that Senator Ashcroft supported who, at least when you talk to some of the people who prepared the documentation for all those judges, were clearly more liberal on criminal justice and other issues than you, but who were white, and then were voted for without any raising of any questions, it’s extremely troubling. To me, it shows real insensitivity to our long and tortured history of racial relations. And would you care to comment on that thought? Am I off base here? Do you think it applied to you? Tell me what you think.

JUSTICE RONNIE WHITE: Senator, first, let me say I don’t think Senator Ashcroft is a racist, and I wouldn’t attempt to comment on what’s in his mind or what’s in his heart. But the answer I would give to your question is this: There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected, and particularly in the African American community. And the reason for that outrage, I believe, is that when you have an African American judge, African Americans see that as one more step towards true equality. So when that judge rules, whatever way it is, there shouldn’t be any hint of racism or any underhanded dealing, because there is a sense that that person gives it their best. So that would be my explanation for the outrage behind my rejection.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Do you think there was a feeling that a double standard was used in opposing your nomination?


KWAME HOLMAN: But Arizona Republican Jon Kyl came to Ashcroft’s defense. He said Ashcroft never lobbied his colleagues to reject White’s nomination.

SEN. JON KYL: Of course, Republicans did vote against your nomination. We ordinarily don’t discuss what is said within our caucuses, our policy luncheons, but let me just allude to this one occasion. We usually devote a couple of minutes to business that’s going to be coming up in the afternoon or the next day or two. And John Ashcroft rose and made very brief remarks. They were subdued. He said, "I am not asking any of you to follow my lead, but since one of the votes is going to be on a Missouri judge, I felt I should at least explain to you why I will be voting no, so as not to blindside any of you." And he spoke very briefly, primarily focusing on the impact of many law enforcement people in the state of Missouri who based their opposition on what some of them suggested were decisions that suggested that you were soft on crime. No one ever mentioned your race. In fact, I know that many of my colleagues, when they voted, were not aware of your race until after the vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: White’s appearance before the Committee lasted just over an hour. Among those who followed him to the witness table was Jerry Hunter. The former Missouri Labor Secretary under then- Governor Ashcroft had only praise for him.

JERRY HUNTER, Former Missouri Labor Secretary: Contrary to statements which you have just recently heard and will hear from others during this hearing, I do not believe Senator Ashcroft is insensitive to minorities in this society. I think the record, which has been laid out by Senator Ashcroft, clearly contradicts these allegations. Like President-elect George W. Bush, Senator Ashcroft followed a policy of affirmative access and inclusiveness during his service to the state of Missouri as Attorney General, his two terms as Governor, and his one term in the United States Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sharing the witness table with Hunter was Harriet Woods, the Lieutenant Governor elected to serve with then-Governor Ashcroft.

HARRIET WOODS, Former Missouri Lieutenant Governor: In 1985, when both of us were sworn in, one as Governor and one as Lieutenant Governor– the odd couple, of course– I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican– he said to me, "I could find useful things for you to do, but in return, you will have to give up the authority to serve as the Governor in my absence when I leave the state." I was really stunned. I said, "well, why?" I mean, I certainly would do nothing to in any way misuse that power. I want to cooperate with you. I have every motive to cooperate with you. I can’t unilaterally give up a constitutional duty." He said, "that’s not the way I read the law." And he left the state without notifying me or the Secretary of State. He didn’t at that time contest this in the courts. He didn’t say, "let’s get this law changed." Ultimately, I was… it was ridiculous. But he raised the same thing with my successor, Mel Carnahan, poisoning the atmosphere with him, ultimately did go to court. The court said his authority did extend when he was outside the state, but the judge added he really ought to work with the Lieutenant Governor to better serve the people of the state.

KWAME HOLMAN: Reporter: Committee members questioned the witnesses into the early evening. Meanwhile, there still appear to be enough votes in the Senate to confirm John Ashcroft, but there also are reports Democrat Edward Kennedy may lead a filibuster of the nomination, delaying a final vote for some time.