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Ashcroft Hearings: Sen. Specter Questions Attorney General Nominee

Aired January 17, 2001 - 10:29 a.m. ET


JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: John Ashcroft remaining calm and conciliatory, under questioning this morning from Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin. We did see some tension early in the hearings between Senators Leahy and Hatch, a reflection of just how divisive this nomination of John Ashcroft is.

Let's go back up to the Hill and listen to some more of the questioning.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: ... what cases to prosecute and how to handle them.

And what I think many Americans are looking for, beyond your assurance that you will enforce the law, is your commitment to exercise your discretion to carry out the intent of the law on a woman's right to choose within the confines of existing law, which you have promised to support.

One of the votes that you cast that I thought was particularly significant was the one in the bankruptcy context; interesting that it should have an application to a woman's right to choose. But when protesters blocked abortion clinics, there have been some very substantial verdicts handed down, one in excess of $100 million.

And when that issue came before the Senate, you voted that those individuals who had those verdicts against them would not be permitted to have a discharge in bankruptcy.

What assurances can you give, Senator Ashcroft, that your discretionary calls as attorney general will be to enforce the intent behind existing law on a woman's right to choose?

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Well, any constitutionally protected right is an important right. And I think people who interfere with the exercise of constitutionally protected rights should be the focus of attention by prosecutorial authorities.

It's my understanding that there are anticipated several dozen cases a year in terms of the violence or obstruction or coercion around abortion facilities or other reproductive health facilities. And I would think that it should be the responsibility of the attorney general to be able to respond aggressively in every one of those situations.

SPECTER: Well, if you say aggressively, that is a good assurance. Aggressive has a well-accepted meaning. I like aggressive prosecutors.

Let me pinpoint the issue on constitutionality of the statute -- the freedom of access to clinic entrances. There have been some 24 cases which have challenged the constitutionality of the act under the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause, and all 24 of these cases have been decided favorably to the constitutionality of the act. The job of the attorney general, just like the job of the district attorney or state attorney general, is to uphold the constitutionality of the act, and I note you're nodding in the affirmative. Would you commit to the attorney general's generalized responsibility to support the constitutionality of existing legislation, like the freedom of access to clinic entrances?

ASHCROFT: Let me just say that I would support the constitutionality of the act. I don't believe there is a First Amendment right to coercion and intimidation. I think that's the clearest thing I can say. When people say that this act interferes with their First Amendment right, I don't think that's what the First Amendment provides.

The First Amendment does not mean that you have the right to intimidate a person who is exercising their constitutional rights. The First Amendment doesn't provide you with the right to violate the person, and safety and security of an individual in that respect. So I will vigorously enforce and defend the constitutionality of -- of course, that's my responsibility.

When this Senate acts and makes a determination through enactment signed by the president that something should be the law, that places a very high level of responsibility on the attorney general to carry that out.

SPECTER: Let me move to freedom of religion, Senator Ashcroft, an area, again, where substantial concern has been expressed. There have been many quotations of your speech at Bob Jones University on, "We have no king but Jesus." And I view that as a personal comment which you have made. We all have our own views on religion. And the question is not what John Ashcroft or Arlen Specter hold as religious views, but whether the sacrosanct provisions of the First Amendment on freedom of religion will be maintained or enforced, and the attorney general has a very vital role there.

Political speeches frequently contain a lot of references to religion. This happens on both sides of the political aisle, and some of us may not do it and some of us may. But political speeches are one thing and personal views are another, but the most important factor is the enforcement of the law.

Now, I note that, as attorney general of Missouri, you had acted to prohibit the distribution of religious materials on a campus. And what I would like to know is your determination, putting aside your own views, your resoluteness to enforce the sacrosanct provisions for freedom of religion of the First Amendment, and perhaps if there are other instances that you could show, in addition to that one where you stop the distribution of religious material on a campus.

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I am committed to the right of individuals to worship freely in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience or not to worship at all. And I will work assiduously to defend that right for all Americans.

The phrase, "We have no king but Jesus," was a representation of what colonists were saying at the time of the American Revolution in a number of instances. And it became a bit of a rallying cry when people came to collect taxes on behalf of the king of England, and the American colonists would respond with that phrase.

I was putting in that speech in context the idea that the ultimate authority of the ultimate idea of freedom in America is not governmentally derived. It basically went to something that was reflected when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He didn't write: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men get from government equality...

SPECTER: Senator Ashcroft, because of limited time...


SPECTER: ... would you pinpoint what you did specifically as attorney general of Missouri in not permitting religious matters to be handed out on campus?

ASHCROFT: Well, the question was raised about whether Christian groups could distribute Bibles on school grounds. And the Missouri Constitution happens to be even more adamant about church and state, and requiring separation far more clearly, even than does the U.S. Constitution. And I looked at the Constitution and these groups, obviously, were groups that I had some favor for, but, obviously, the law has to be followed.

I simply...

SPECTER: Did you stop the distribution of those...

ASHCROFT: I issued the opinion that indicated that distribution was unlawful.

SPECTER: And what did you do?

ASHCROFT: Well, distribution ceased based on that.

SPECTER: Let me move to Supreme Court nominations. Senator Ashcroft, President-elect Bush has already said that he would not employ a litmus test on pro-choice, pro-life on Supreme Court nominees. On this panel, many of us who are pro-choice have supported candidates for the Supreme Court who were known to be pro-life, and many senators who vote pro-life have supported nominees who have been known to be pro-choice. To the extent that you have any rule in the selection of Supreme Court nominees, would you make a commitment not to employ a litmus test on the pro-choice, pro-life distinction?

MESERVE: And at the same time, Senator John Ashcroft's hearings are going on, Christie Todd Whitman is before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.



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