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Sen. John Ashcroft's eyes are rolling around funny in his head again.
It's re-election time.
God's personal senator from Missouri has found himself another Satan, this time in the judicially "unfit" person of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, a St. Louisan and the first African-American to sit on the state's highest court (no thanks to Ashcroft, who had the toughest time finding qualified blacks and women for appointments when he was governor).
Two years ago, President Bill Clinton nominated the widely respected White as a U.S. district judge. In May 1998, White sailed through the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on a 13-3 vote, with Ashcroft one of the lonely dissenters.
But White's nomination was transported to the Clinton-judicial-nominee landfill, where the Republicans cheerfully laid to rest dozens of qualified appointees because, well, they could. Even conservatives like U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist have bemoaned congressional inaction on approving judges the judicial system being undeniably bogged down but with Ashcroft heading the posse, far-right senators are having too much fun hunting "activist liberal judges" to pay much attention.
In White's case, though, Ashcroft's real target is a fellow named Mel Carnahan, the governor poised to give the senator the election challenge of his life next year. Ashcroft thinks Carnahan's Achilles' heel is his unpopular sparing of a death-row inmate last winter at the behest of Pope John Paul II, and Carnahan did, after all, name White to both the Missouri Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.
So guess why Ashcroft is all in a tizzy over the notion of confirming White?
Why, it's a death-penalty thing. And a liberal thing. What a coincidence.
"He's the most liberal judge on the Missouri Supreme Court when it comes to the death penalty," Ashcroft told the Post-Dispatch. "He has written or joined three times as many dissents in death penalty cases as any other judge on the court."
Ashcroft didn't actually produce any numbers to back those claims an aide could only say that White voted 14 times in 52 cases to overturn death sentences but on further review a more telling fact is revealed: It turns out that honesty isn't one of Ashcroft's most sacred moral values.
The Post reported that in only three of those dreaded 14 cases was White the lone dissenter, and that in five of the cases, the decision to overturn was unanimous. In no case could less than a four-judge majority throw out a death sentence, and aside from White and recently appointed Judge Mike Wolff, Ashcroft himself appointed the other judges.
But that's not all. In my own research, I found that White has authored no fewer than six opinions upholding the death penalty that would be more than his proportionate share on the seven-member court and he's dissented from any of the other six judges only once in nine death-penalty cases this year.
And this shouldn't be about numbers, in any case. As Ashcroft, who once passed a bar exam, must know, the court's deliberations on death-penalty cases are highly technical exercises in whether the law has been applied properly, not straw polls on the death penalty.
Ashcroft is purposely preying on the public's naivete about the judicial system to twist the facts about a Carnahan appointee so that he can set himself apart as the ultimate champion of frying criminals.
Now, I think that's pretty low, but I'm not what you'd call unbiased about John Ashcroft. So what might an impartial judge say?
I called Senior Judge Charles Blackmar of Jefferson City, a man who served nine years on Missouri Supreme Court including two as chief justice after his 1982 appointment by then-Gov. Kit Bond. Until entering the nonpartisan world of judgeship, Blackmar was a Republican. And he was appointed by a presumably conservative Republican.
I wasn't prepared for what he had to say about Ashcroft's attack on White.
"The senator has the power to approve or disapprove nominees for any reason at all, or for no reason, but based on what he said as quoted in the Post-Dispatch, I think he's tampering with the judiciary, not only in Missouri but in any state that has the death penalty," Blackmar told me. "He apparently is saying that a vote against the death penalty is activist or liberal and a vote for it is apparently all right.
"The senator holds an important seat on the judiciary committee, so any state judge in a state that has the death penalty knows that if he wants to please Ashcroft someday, he has a problem in opposing the death penalty."
In his quasi-retirement, Blackmar sometimes sits as a special judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals or Supreme Court when one of the judges has recused himself or is otherwise unable to hear a case. Blackmar said he has heard cases alongside White on both courts.
"I think he's thoroughly capable of serving as a U.S. district judge," says Blackmar. "He's a hard worker; he studies the law, tries to apply it as he sees it, tries to analyze issues carefully and decides them after study."
Now, that endorsement doesn't make for a great sound bite, but it is precisely what senators like Ashcroft should be considering if they're serious about their constitutional duty in the confirmation process. But if there's a cheap political trick to be turned, Ashcroft scoffs at the very Constitution he purports to defend.
If that means maligning a good man like Ronnie White for personal political gain, Sen. Morality doesn't bat an eye. Just smiles for the cameras and blathers about "liberals."
Never mind about White's qualifications, about his experience as a public defender, a private-sector lawyer, a thrice-elected state legislator, a city counselor (for St. Louis), an appeals-court judge and a Supreme Court judge. Never mind that as a legislator, White was so independent that he quit the Black Caucus because he felt dictated to and that he publicly sparred with Rep. William Clay.
Just lump him with the other liberals, right, Senator?
Well, fine. Here's one for you.
On the occasion of his being named to the Missouri Supreme Court, the late great Rep. Sue Shear recalled how White had stood up for urban concerns, including her prized bill to keep guns out of the hands of children.
What did she think of White?
"On a scale of one to 10, he'd be a 10," Shear said.
That's at least 11 better than Ashcroft.