Ashcroft rebuts racial-bias charges

Confirmation appears assured for nominee to attorney general post

January 18, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Rebutting charges of racial insensitivity, Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft said yesterday that his opposition to the appointment of a black judge to a federal court was based solely on a disagreement over legal standards he thought the judge would apply too broadly.

Caught in a partisan cross-fire of questions on the second day of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft also tried to deflect concerns raised by a 1998 interview he gave to a neo-Confederate magazine.

"I believe that racism is wrong - I repudiate it," Ashcroft told the committee. "I repudiate racist organizations, I'm not a member of any of them. If I had been in the Civil War, I would have fought with Grant."

Further, Ashcroft said, he would make it a top priority as attorney general to stop what he called the "unconstitutional" practice of racial profiling by some police agencies, and to act on the results of studies that are examining whether the death penalty and other punishments are applied unevenly according to race.

Democrats on the committee acknowledged that Ashcroft will likely win confirmation in the evenly split Senate. But they warned their conservative former Senate colleague that he would have to be more sensitive to impressions if he wants the confidence of African-Americans and others who are alarmed by his record.

"People are suspicious, not because they believe you are a racist, but because they suspect your ideology blinds you to an equal application of not just the law, but the facts," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat. "You're probably going to be attorney general. I wish you'd understand that words matter."

Ashcroft's prospects for confirmation seemed all but assured yesterday after Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia became the first Democrat to announce his support for the nominee.

Miller explained in a statement that he believes that "a president should be able to select his own team." He stressed that he would "not vote to confirm someone who I thought was a bigot or would hamper the cause of African-Americans."

All 50 Senate Republicans are expected to support Ashcroft's confirmation.

Nevertheless, Ashcroft, who served six years in the Senate, after stints as Missouri attorney general and governor, is under fire from an array of liberal groups because of a record that they say reflects staunch opposition to civil rights, abortion rights, women's rights, gay rights, and gun control.

Ashcroft reiterated yesterday his earlier pledge to enforce and defend the laws of the United States, and went even further, promising that he would make no effort to overturn the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision that guarantees the right to abortion.

Despite his personal opposition to that decision, Ashcroft told the Senate, it is clear that further challenges would be pointless because the Supreme Court "has said very clearly it doesn't want to decide that issue again."

Ashcroft explained that President-elect George W. Bush, who is also an abortion opponent, has made equally clear that he has no interest in reopening the battle on that issue.

As attorney general, Ashcroft said, he would respect Bush's promise not to apply a "litmus test" to judicial nominees to gauge their opposition to abortion.

"No litmus test - that would be my policy, too," Ashcroft said.

In seeking to assure the committee that he understands the "vastly different responsibilities" of lawmakers and attorneys general, Ashcroft pledged to enforce so many laws he has previously opposed that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, suggested that Ashcroft might be undergoing a "confirmation conversion."

Ashcroft made no apologies for any of his previous positions, however. He stood by his decision, for example, to lead the successful Senate opposition to Ronnie White, the first black justice on Missouri's Supreme Court, who had been nominated in 1999 by President Clinton to a federal judgeship.

White, who is scheduled to appear before the panel today in opposition to Ashcroft's nomination, was rejected by the Senate after Ashcroft labeled him "pro-criminal" and soft on the death penalty.

Ashcroft said yesterday that his concerns were based largely on White's argument in a Missouri Supreme Court decision, which was not persuasive with a majority on the court, that a murder conviction should be overturned because the defendant's attorney made a mistake that suggested incompetence.

"Did you treat Ronnie White fairly?" asked Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who contended that Ashcroft's views were not shared by most of the law enforcement community in Missouri and that White "was given shabby treatment" because of Ashcroft's instigation.

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