Justice for John Ashcroft?

He deserves a taste of his own medicine in confirmation hearings

John Ashcroft had better hope one rule is not in force when the U.S. Senate considers his nomination as attorney general by President-elect George W. Bush.

That would be the Golden Rule.

More than any other venue, Ashcroft used the forum of Senate confirmation hearings to act out his political dark side, savaging presidential nominees for sport and political gain. In one high-profile case after another, Ashcroft stood out among his peers as a conservative attack dog, never afraid to besmirch a career or reputation.

As senator, Ashcroft zealously assailed nominees who didn't share his extreme-right-wing views on abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty and the like. And he always showed a special place in his heartlessness for African-American selections.

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft gave no respect to a president's prerogative -- honored by most senators -- to appoint men and women ideologically compatible with his administration. Instead, Ashcroft applied his Christian Coalition litmus tests and did so gracelessly, with far more regard to headlines than civility.

Now that he's on the other side of the table, Ashcroft deserves to have done unto him what he has done to others.

Even a partial recollection of his political "hits" offers insight into what sort of treatment that might mean:

€ Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, rejected for a federal judgeship (on a party-line vote) after Ashcroft led a one-man smear campaign in which he labeled White "unfit" for the judiciary and "soft on crime," ostensibly for voting to overturn some death sentences while on the high court. White was appointed by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan as the first black justice ever on the court.

Ashcroft's case against White was utter deceit. Even setting aside that Ashcroft knew full well that Supreme Court votes focus on the fairness of trials -- and aren't referenda on the death penalty -- White's record didn't differ substantially from those of Ashcroft's own seven appointees to the court.

€ Bill Lann Lee, assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department. Lee's confirmation was blocked after a loud Ashcroft-sparked campaign assailing Lee for supporting affirmative action.

"Putting Bill Lann Lee in charge of enforcing the civil-rights laws is seriously wrong because he remains committed to racial preferences and quotas," said Ashcroft in a telling preview of how he'd approach civil-rights issues as attorney general. "Mr. Lee persists in the belief that Americans should be judged by the color of their skin in determining academic admissions, public contracts and employment."

€ Surgeon General David Satcher, approved on a 63-35 vote despite an Ashcroft holy war over Satcher's support of abortion rights and controversial AIDS research. Ashcroft's genteel assessment of the nominee: "It's time for us to demand a surgeon general who will appeal to the better angels of our nature, not bow to our basest desires."

€ Henry Foster, a widely respected candidate for surgeon general whose nomination was blocked in 1995 by Ashcroft and other Republicans, also over abortion. Ashcroft helped concoct a phony issue regarding how much emphasis was given to abstinence in a teen-pregnancy program headed by Foster. When he took the bait and tried to clarify his answers in writing, Foster was vilified by the senator for being "less than forthcoming." Added an Ashcroft aide: "Here is a man under oath who can't give a straight answer."

€ Philadelphia City Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, whose federal-judgeship nomination was killed in a mean-spirited campaign led by Ashcroft. Like White, Massiah-Jackson was a respected African-American judge rejected for the federal judiciary through intentional distortion of her record, which Ashcroft and o0ther right-wingers deemed too liberal. Example: They dredged up an instance, 15 years earlier, when, as a young judge, she lost her patience and swore at a prosecutor.

"There can be no excuse for Senate approval of a judge who fails to understand the proper limits of judicial power or whose conduct is an embarrassment to judicial office," Ashcroft said piously.

Of these five prime-time examples -- and it's by no means an exhaustive list -- only Lee isn't an African-American, and his "crime" was to have supported affirmative action, which Ashcroft has always opposed. There is certainly a pattern here.

In the spirit with which Ashcroft has grilled so many others, he should be called on to explain the racially challenged politics (to put it nicely) with which he has pandered to the "basest desires" (to borrow his phrase) of the political process. He should be expected to explain his careerlong opposition to school integration, his statement that "we should all do more" to promote the Confederacy, his honorary degree from Bob Jones University and his record of having a nearly all-white staff and few key black appointments.

The Judiciary Committee should also wonder about how Ashcroft would uphold the legal rights of women to abortions, seeing as how he has long advocated criminalizing them. They might also ask about enforcing the rights of gays, to whom he has been unfailingly hostile.

Should this guy be in the top law-enforcement position for civil rights in America? Absolutely not. Ashcroft has neither the tolerance nor the temperament for the job.

But should it matter that he's Bush choice and this is Bush's team?

Not if the Senate does unto him as he has done to others.

 
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