Ashcroft isn't right for attorney general

Integrity: Nominee fails test of commitment to truth that's needed in Justice Department chief.

January 31, 2001

FEW PEOPLE had ever heard of racial profiling a few years ago.

But now it's a household phrase, because former Attorney General Janet Reno's lawyers proved many police departments were treating skin color as if it were a highway crime, pulling over minority drivers for one reason -- their race.

It was an important reminder that discrimination is still very much alive in America.

During Ms. Reno's tenure, Justice Department lawyers delved into problems in employment, fair housing and lending, education, public accommodations and voting. They investigated Americans With Disabilities Act violations, enforced federal laws protecting access to abortion clinics.

The point: Ms. Reno didn't merely acknowledge or respect the existence of civil rights and other laws designed to protect Americans. She embraced them and enforced them doggedly, because discrimination still robs entire classes of Americans of their most basic liberties.

That brings us to the troubling nomination of former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to head the Justice Department.

His record suggests no such embrace of civil rights laws or the premise of equal protection under law. Many things he has said and done betray a vicious hostility toward them.

He has blasted the judiciary (which he calls the least representative branch of government) for granting "group rights" to minorities, without regard to the group discrimination that necessitates those rights.

He has opposed public school desegregation -- in one instance to the point of being threatened with judicial contempt -- and proposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion in all forms for any reason.

And he has defended or stood mute in the face of other institutions that attack the very premise of equal rights -- Bob Jones University, a neo-Confederate magazine called Southern Partisan, even groups with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

His record has inspired progressive groups around the country to oppose Mr. Ashcroft's nomination. It's also why some Democratic senators are threatening a filibuster to block a confirmation vote.

We share the concerns about Mr. Ashcroft's civil rights record. We worry that his confirmation as attorney general could mean the end of the Justice Department's important efforts to level America's uneven playing fields.

But that alone would be insufficient for us to call for derailing a Cabinet nominee. Generally, we believe presidents should be given wide latitude in making their appointments.

There is another, more important reason to oppose Mr. Ashcroft -- his character.

When Mr. Ashcroft tanked the federal judicial nomination of Ronnie White, he demonstrated a recklessness with truth and integrity that the nation can't countenance in an attorney general.

He lied about Mr. White's stance on death penalty cases, painting him as an anti-death penalty maverick when, in fact, Mr. White had affirmed death sentences 71 percent of the time as a Missouri Supreme Court judge.

And to this date, Mr. Ashcroft has not owned up to what he did. During his own confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Ashcroft defended what he did to Mr. White -- and denied that it represented a distortion of the truth.

Whatever the reasons for Mr. Ashcroft's actions, they speak to a willingness to pursue his own agenda by any means necessary, without regard to veracity or fairness.

That makes it difficult -- or near impossible -- to imagine Mr. Ashcroft setting a credible legal agenda from the seat of the nation's highest law enforcement officer.

It also makes it hard to believe any of what Mr. Ashcroft said during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he passionately stated he would abide by and enforce laws that don't necessarily coincide with his personal beliefs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to confirm Mr. Ashcroft. The full Senate could vote by Thursday.

A "no" vote in the full chamber -- however unlikely that might be -- is the only course that will save the Justice Department from the taint of Mr. Ashcroft's improbity.

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