Missouri judge whom Ashcroft blocked testifies

White tells committee ex-senator `seriously distorted my record'

January 19, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A black Missouri Supreme Court justice charged yesterday that John Ashcroft "seriously distorted my record," and he questioned whether Ashcroft has the commitment to "fair play and justice" required of an attorney general.

The saga of Justice Ronnie White, whose nomination to the federal bench was rejected by the Senate at Ashcroft's behest, has become the central rallying point of the liberal groups and lawmakers who are trying to derail Ashcroft's nomination to the Bush Cabinet, in part because of what they say is his racial insensitivity.

But unless Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, makes good on veiled threats of a filibuster, which Democratic aides say is unlikely, Ashcroft's confirmation by the evenly divided Senate seems all but certain. There might even be enough Democratic support for the former senator to cut off any filibuster.

Advocates for civil rights, abortion rights and women's rights tried again yesterday to raise doubts about whether the staunchly conservative Ashcroft can effectively enforce laws with which he disagrees.

During his somber appearance at the third day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Ashcroft nomination, White, the first African-American to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court, said his main goal was not to block the confirmation but to "reclaim my reputation as a lawyer and a judge."

Ashcroft, who testified Wednesday that he disagreed with several of White's legal opinions, labeled him during Senate debate in 1999 as "soft on crime," with a "tremendous bent toward criminal activity" and a "serious bias" against the death penalty.

"I deeply resent those baseless misrepresentations," the judge told the committee. "I want to say this as clearly as I can: My record belies these accusations. I voted with the majority of the court in 53 of 59 death penalty cases.

"The question for the Senate," White said, "is whether these misrepresentations are consistent with the fair play and justice you all would require of the U.S. attorney general."

White said he was most troubled that Ashcroft had never asked him about his dissenting opinion in the multiple murder case around which the opposition to White's confirmation was based or given White a chance to explain his reasoning before attacking him on the Senate floor.

"I don't think Senator Ashcroft is a racist," White said. But the judge said he believed that Ashcroft applied a double standard in his case, noting that the former senator had supported white judges with similar or more liberal records. "There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected and particularly in the African-American community," he said.

Kennedy and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who have been ratcheting up their rhetoric against Ashcroft, charged yesterday that his opposition to White was a cynical political tactic.

They said they believed his goal was to fend off a re-election challenge from his Democratic opponent last year, Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri, by making the death penalty a key issue in the contest. Carnahan, who died in a plane crash near the end of their tightly fought race but won the most votes anyway, had named White to the Missouri Supreme Court.

"You, Judge White, were a victim of this political calculation," Durbin said.

Ashcroft's defenders responded by producing Kenny Jones, a Missouri sheriff whose wife was among four people killed by James Johnson during a murderous rampage that Johnson's lawyers claimed was the result of post-traumatic syndrome from service in Vietnam.

Jones, who appeared in the committee room wearing his uniform, submitted a written statement, read aloud by Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Republican, who was a prosecutor in the case. In his statement, Jones said he had asked Ashcroft to oppose White's nomination because the judge had urged that Johnson's conviction be reversed and that he be given a new trial.

"Johnson killed my wife in cold blood," Jones wrote. "Offering him a second chance, as Judge White would do, is something I will never understand."

White said he believed that a mistake made by one of Johnson's lawyers had denied him a fair trial. The six other members of the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that the lawyer's mistake was not sufficient to overturn the conviction.

Republican committee members who earlier in the week had been critical of White were gentle with him yesterday. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosector, said he understood why White would be bitter, but asked whether White could understand why Ashcroft approached the issue as he did.

"I can understand his approach, but I can't understand why he wouldn't want to hear my reasoning," White said. But he insisted, "I'm not bitter."

Democrats remain in nominal control of the Senate until tomorrow, when the swearing-in of Dick Cheney as vice president, who will be able to break ties in the Senate, will shift power to the Republicans.

On Wednesday, Kennedy appeared so angry during an exchange with Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, that he warned that he would "take some time" to discuss the Ashcroft nomination on the Senate floor. He later told reporters he would not rule out a filibuster.

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