GWEN IFILL: As the debate over the Ashcroft nomination heats up, we turn to four of the combatants. Kate Michelman is the President of NARAL, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Elaine Jones is the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Clint Bolick is the litigation director at the Institute for Justice, and Ken Conner is President of the Family Research Council.
Elaine Jones, from a legal point of view looking at John Ashcroft as potential for the being the nation's top lawyer, what is wrong or right with this nomination?
ELAINE JONES, NAACP Legal Defense Fund: You know, Gwen, I wish I did not have to be here opposing this nomination; but when you look at John Ashcroft and his views overall, what you get is a sense of a throw- back to the '50s in terms of our civil rights laws. They didn't exist. In the last 35 years as a nation, we have gone through fits and starts, up and down, creating this scheme of civil rights protections for all of us, and now in comes John Ashcroft opposing hate crimes, you know, looking at very differently looking at the whole question of employment discrimination -- looking at the whole issue of representation on the bench, on a diverse federal bench. I mean, and so it just gives you a real sense that we are in some very serious jeopardy of holding on to that fabric that we as a nation have fought to establish.
GWEN IFILL: Clint Bolick , Elaine Jones speaks in apocalyptic terms about this nomination.
CLINT BOLICK, Institute for Justice: In extreme and excessive terms. John Ashcroft is a man who believes to the core of his soul in the civil rights laws of this country. He signed the first hate crimes legislation in Missouri history. He voted for 26 out of 28 minority appointments of President Clinton to the Bench. The two he voted against-- one, Ronnie White, was opposed by 55 members of the United States Senate, including such moderates as Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter. The other was withdrawn by President Clinton. He signed into law the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday in Missouri, which was contentious elsewhere. This is a man who will restore integrity to the Justice Department, which desperately needs that integrity. What Elaine Jones doesn't like is that times have changed and that a majority of Americans think that the era of racial division ought to be over; so too does John Ashcroft.
GWEN IFILL: Ken Conner, the other big issue, of course, is abortion. As you know, of course, John Ashcroft is very much anti-abortion. Is this something that you... is it a relief to see him nominated from your point of view?
KEN CONNER, Family Research Council: For those of us who cherish life and believe that it's immoral and legally wrong to extinguish the lives of innocent children, we are heartened by the nomination of Senator Ashcroft. He is a man committed to the rule of law. I expect that he will enforce the law and bring much needed confidence back to the Justice Department which has been grossly over politicized during the Clinton administration. He's a person of goodwill, which is not to be confused with a lack of will. And I think it's very heartening to people around the country who cherish life that a person such as Senator Ashcroft, a distinguished lawyer, a distinguished statesman, has been nominated for this position.
GWEN IFILL: When you say rule of law, does that also extend in your opinion to upholding Roe versus Wade?
KEN CONNER: I think it extends to upholding the laws that are on the books. I think it extends to affirming the decisions that are in place, recognizing that many of us have believe that in Roe versus Wade the Supreme Court of the United States hijacked the Constitution and wrote law, made law from the bench rather than followed the law. We would certainly hope that Senator Ashcroft, in his new position, would recommend judges who would be committed to interpreting the law and who would leave lawmaking to the lawmakers.
GWEN IFILL: Kate Michelman, is John Ashcroft a threat to abortion rights?
KATE MICHELMAN, National Abortion Rights Action League: No question. President-elect Bush couldn't have chosen anyone, not anyone, more hostile to a woman's right to choose than John Ashcroft. He has spent his entire public career as Governor, as Attorney General, as Senator assaulting a woman's right to choose, trying to undo Roe versus Wade. I've heard a lot of discussion about his qualifications and upholding the rule of law. Roe versus Wade recognized a woman's constitutional right to privacy and reproductive freedom and choice. Roe versus Wade stands as a monument to women's equality. In fact, Justice Blackmun, who wrote Roe, said over and over again Roe was necessary as women continued their long journey to full emancipation. It was right in 1973 and it's right in 1994 when he said that and it's right in 2001. John Ashcroft has done everything in his power, in all of his public offices to take that right away. In fact, he supports legislation that would define life beginning at fertilization, which would not only criminalize all abortions, take away a woman's right to reproductive freedom and choice but would also outlaw and criminalize many forms of the most common birth control options. This is a serious opponent of women's constitutional and fundamental rights of choice. Yes, he's qualified. He's qualified as the leader of those who want to dismantle Roe versus Wade and take women back to a day when they had no control over their lives and, in fact, when their lives and health were endangered.
GWEN IFILL: Clint Bolick --
KEN CONNER: I think it might be important to remember that the Dred Scott decision was once the law of the land. Plessy versus Ferguson was once the law of the land, but that didn't mean the law wasn't capable of evolution to come up with a better sense of what was fair and just. I believe you can expect Senator Ashcroft to enforce the rule of law and to work through the appropriate processes to encourage a change in the law to yield a fair and just result for innocent unborn children.
ELAINE JONES: What we're being told clearly is that you're talking about activists. What we are going to have from an Attorney General-elect Ashcroft is a wholesale assault on existing civil rights principles. That is as clear as a bell. Now, Senator Ashcroft is reported to have said-- and I don't know whether I have to double check this-- he's reported to have said at one time-- I don't know whether he was in jest or not-- saying that the only things in the middle of the road are a moderate and a dead skunk. I said, well, there's something else in the middle road. And something else in the middle of the road is a white line down the middle of the road. And the people of the United States expect the Attorney General to be right there on that line.
GWEN IFILL: Just one moment. Clint Bolick just said, he talked about the fact that Ronnie White had been opposed by many people -- Ronnie White, the African- American jurist in Missouri. What's your response to that?
ELAINE JONES: I did not raise the issue of the federal judicial appointments. That is a frightening thing when you look at the whole question of the Attorney General of the United States and the Department of Justice as a gatekeeper to the federal bench. That's what it is. It's where judges come in for their questioning. It's where the selection begins. Ronnie White was the first African-American jurist on the Supreme Court of Missouri, well regarded, well respected. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted him out overwhelmingly. And 17 months later here comes Senator Ashcroft ambushing the man arguing that the man was soft on crime and pro death penalty when the facts are that of the 59 death penalty cases that this Judge Ronnie white had, 41 of them he affirmed. I mean it was an ambush. And Clint talks about the 55 Senators. Senator Ashcroft went to the Republican caucus and for his own political partisan purposes he persuaded the Republican caucus to vote against Ronnie White on purely a partisan political....
CLINT BOLICK: Elaine just said something that I really love about John Ashcroft, and that makes him almost unique here in Washington and that is he is a guy who fights for what he believes in. When John Ashcroft gives you his word, he is going to keep his word. I think that's the sort of thing that we need more of in Washington and certainly need in an Attorney General. But what Elaine just does not like is that the law of the land is not where she wants it to be. The law of the land is that racial discrimination is wrong, regardless of whether it's called benign or....
GWEN IFILL: What was racially discriminatory in the Ronnie White selection?
CLINT BOLICK: There was not discriminatory in that selection. John Ashcroft as Governor appointed the first African-American Judge to the Western District Court of Appeals. As I said he voted for the vast majority of minority nominees. This is race-baiting pure and simple. It is an effort on the part of the left wing and the Democratic Party to inflame the base by injecting race. Ashcroft opposed a lot of nominees because he disagreed with them fundamentally on their view of the law not because of their race.
GWEN IFILL: Ken Conner, among the other things John Ashcroft opposed as Senator was his notion of buffer zones around abortion clinics or at least a buffer zone which would allow protesters to have a maintain a certain amount of distance. Do you imagine as Attorney General he would be able to affect that, would be able to repeal that, would have some effect? Would you want him to?
KEN CONNER: I expect that he would enforce the existing law, and we would hope that he would work to change the existing law. Certainly, I think there are many, many people around the country, many First Amendment scholars included who believe that the buffer zone requirements represent an abridgment of free speech. And so I expect in Senator Ashcroft that you'll find a man who committed to the rule of law will work to enforce the existing law and at the same time where the administration disagrees with the law as it currently exists to follow the proper processes to build the public and legislative consensus to pass laws that more nearly equate with what's fair and just.
GWEN IFILL: How much pressure are you prepared to put on the Justice Department to change those laws?
KEN CONNER: Well, we certainly intend to lobby the administration and the Congress, the administrative agencies, to change laws that we think are unfair and unjust. We believe it to be wrong that innocent children are killed in this country to the tune of about a 1, 400,000 every year. We think that's a grave wrong in this country. And we look forward to judges who will interpret the law, who will interpret the Constitution, and not use the bench as a vehicle for advancing their own political or personal or philosophical agendas. We believe that judges who strictly construe the Constitution in accordance with the intent of the Founders will do away ultimately in the final analysis with this law called Roe versus Wade, which has resulted in extermination of 42 million children since it was first passed by the Supreme Court of the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Kate Michelman, are you gearing up for a big fight on this?
KATE MICHELMAN: Absolutely. The future of a woman's right to choose, the future of a woman's equality is on the line here. President-elect Bush, I must admit I was a bit startled by the nomination in this respect. He campaigned hard to convince people who were pro-choice, especially pro-choice women, that he was moderate on these issues. And in one bold, dramatic fail swoop he sort of cracked his facade and showed his intent to do away with a woman's right to choose by putting in place one of the most hostile to women's rights, people he could find to lead the Justice Department. I want to go back to something Elaine said. This Attorney General role has a prominent position in the Cabinet as a whole. It is influential in domestic policy as a whole -- vets the Supreme Court Justice nominations, other federal nominations; advises the President on federal legislation, advises the President in numerous ways.
This nomination poses an enormous threats to rights that women took a century to gain. And I think it's a harbinger of things to come in terms of the kinds of appointments that George Bush is going to make to satisfy those hard-liners who helped him get elected, helped bring votes to him. And I might add that the President- elect has no mandate to take away a woman's right to choose. People who voted... more people voted for a pro-choice candidate than for an anti-choice candidate. So with this nomination I think the President has laid the gauntlet down. I think that John Ashcroft can be counted on to not necessarily enforce the law but to try to undo the law that protects a woman's fundamental right to choose.
GWEN IFILL: Elaine Jones.
ELAINE JONES: And Clint Bolick just made the point that John Ashcroft believes in the point and will drive it home. I say yes to the point of inflexibility. He has a belief.
GWEN IFILL: But it's a Republican President that is making Republican appointments.
ELAINE JONES: Yes. Yes.
GWEN IFILL: What can you do to stop that?
ELAINE JONES: And a Republican President has every right to make a conservative appointment. A Democratic President can make a conservative appointment. That is why I am saying that John Ashcroft is outside of that mold. It is much too far, he's not in the middle of the road. He's not a little bit over to the right. He defines on this issue one who has made up his mind on, you know, there's a right way to go on these issues and all of our laws that we have carefully put together for the past 35 years can be up for grabs.
GWEN IFILL: A response, Clint Bolick.
CLINT BOLICK: My fondest hope is that you will spend a tremendous amount of capital and energy on this because at the end of the day John Ashcroft will be confirmed. There's no surprise that Governor Bush has chosen John Ashcroft as his Attorney General. Governor Bush was a law-and-order Governor in Texas. He believes in the role of law, so too does John Ashcroft. I said that he keeps his promises. The most sacred promise that he will make is his oath to uphold the law of the land, when he's sworn in as Attorney General. Unlike the last eight years I think we'll have an Attorney General who will actually do that.
ELAINE JONES: As Clint does, I say the U.S. Senate will hear us and they will vote on the basis of what they hear.
GWEN IFILL: Well, as Ray Suarez says, I can tell that the fax machines are heating up. Thank you all very much.