A sad mugging of a qualified judge

October 12, 1999

Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the New York Times, which was published Friday.

JUST when it seemed the judicial confirmation process in the Senate had reached a nadir, Republicans last week set a new low. By a strict party-line vote, they rejected a mainstream candidate for a federal district judgeship in Missouri, Ronnie White, based on trumped-up charges about his record in death penalty cases.

Mr. White, the first African-American to sit on Missouri's highest court, had been waiting for more than two years for the Senate to act on his nomination. He deserved better than the Republicans' last-minute ambush, which President Clinton has blasted as a "disgraceful act of partisan politics" that "maligned and distorted" Mr. White's record and provided strong evidence "for those who believe that the Senate treats minority and women judicial nominees unequally."

For those who voted in lock-step to defeat Mr. White -- among them Missouri's senior senator, Christopher Bond, who had warmly introduced him to the Judiciary Committee -- this was not a vote of principle.

It was, transparently, a political favor for Missouri's other senator, John Ashcroft, who is facing a tough re-election battle and trying to gain an edge using the death penalty issue.

During Tuesday's debate, Mr. Ashcroft depicted Mr. White as a "pro-criminal and activist" judge who is reluctant to vote for the death penalty.

Put aside for the moment the fact that any responsible judge familiar with cases of mistaken convictions should feel hesitant about imposing the ultimate sanction of death.

What the record shows is that on the state bench, Mr. White has voted to affirm the death sentence in dozens of cases. In those instances where he voted for reversal, he has cited fundamental defects, like ineffective assistance of counsel -- and much of the time he was joined by judges appointed by Mr. Ashcroft himself when he was Missouri's governor -- a detail that Mr. Ashcroft somehow forgot to mention.

By ganging up on Mr. White for failing to rubber-stamp the prosecution in every case, Senate Republicans have undermined judicial independence and made it harder to restore a sense of bipartisanship to the Senate's lumbering judicial confirmation process.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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