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Ashcroft Hearing: Senators Question Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie WhiteAired January 18, 2001 - 9:32 a.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We have a number of confirmation hearings to show you today. Also now Tommy Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin, his confirmation hearing set to begin. Do we have those picks for you? I was told we have pictures.
All right, apparently we have a discussion in the control room what pictures we want to show.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We have more pictures of Ronnie White in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
KAGAN: Ronnie White. OK, Judge Ronnie White.
HARRIS: Do we have those pictures?
KAGAN: I believe that what they're trying to tell us this is Sen. Ashcroft as he comes into his confirmation hearing.
HARRIS: No, that's actually Ronnie White there standing next to Sen. Patrick Leahy, who's the ranking Democrat there. And there is the judge there, Justice White, standing there in the center of that second -- the center green table there.
KAGAN: Right. As we said, you said this is Ronnie White Day. This is the Supreme Court justice from Missouri. He will have a lot to say about his dealings with John Ashcroft over the years -- Jeanne. Do we have Jeanne Meserve with us?
HARRIS: Let's go to Jeanne -- Jeanne Meserve is closer to all this than we are right now. Let's go to Washington and get Jeanne Meserve and bring her in -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: Here I am, here I am.
KAGAN: All right.
HARRIS: There you go.
MESERVE: Ronnie White. Let me tell you a little bit about him. He is a Missouri state Supreme Court justice. And he was nominated to the federal bench by William Jefferson Clinton, and his nomination was opposed by John Ashcroft very strongly. Ashcroft said he disagreed with his stand on several capital punishment cases. And he spoke very forcefully against Ronnie's White's nomination, and it was, in fact, derailed.
There are those who say that the reason John Ashcroft actually opposed Ronnie White was because of his stand -- because of the fact that he is an African American. And today, for the first time, we're going to hear Ronnie White's rendition of events. In addition to talking about Ashcroft's opposition to him, it is likely that he will be queried about his judicial record and the stances he took in some of the particular cases that involved capital punishment in the state of Missouri.
So this will be a very interesting session today. You can expect that the Republican senators on the panel will be doing the grilling today. The last couple of days, of course, when we've had John Ashcroft in the chair, it has been the Democrats who have been doing the forceful questioning. there will be something of a reversal of roles today in terms of the senators.
There are a lot of other people speaking at the Ashcroft hearing today. Let me tell you some of those. We have a representative of the National Women's Law Center, Planned Parenthood, NARAL. All of them will talk about John Ashcroft's stand on abortion. He opposes abortion rights, and they object to him on that basis.
Also, several other people talking about his civil rights record, including Wade Henderson. He's the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. That group has been one of those that has been extraordinary active in opposing the Ashcroft nomination. They helped pull together this umbrella organization of about 200 advocacy groups which put up a Web site and showered Capitol Hill with e-mails to voice their opposition to Ashcroft and his record.
So this will be a very interesting day. We will also be hearing from some of Ashcroft's supporters later in the day. He has very strong support from the conservative part of the American political spectrum. He has championed many of the causes over the year. They are thrilled that he got this nomination, and they will be speaking out today very forcefully in his support.
So that's some of what we'll be hearing out of this particular committee room today. But as you mentioned, we've got a multi-ring circus up in the U.S. Senate today. This won't be the only one.
KAGAN: We have plenty to talk about. Jeanne, on this Judge white situation, much is being made of what happened in 1999 when John Ashcroft did lead the blocking of Judge White's going up to the federal bench. But yet these two men go way back in the Missouri politics there's a lot of conflicts between them that I think go back to the days when Ronnie White wasn't a judge but a state legislator.
MESERVE: That's right. It has been said that while Ronnie White was in the legislature, there was a piece of abortion legislation which Ronnie White scuttled, effectively, and that there is lingering bad feeling from Ashcroft over that.
Bob Franken is up on Capitol Hill with more for us -- Bob. BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A very powerful speech that's going to be delivered in the opening remarks of Ronnie White. CNN has obtained a copy of it. First of all, he refers to his background, but then he talks about Sen. Ashcroft and the charges that he made that Ronnie White was, in fact, pro-defendant. He says -- and I quote from the speech in the advance release -- "I deeply resent these baseless misrepresentations. In fact -- and I want to say this as clearly as I can -- my record belies these accusations," the charges by then-Sen. John Ashcroft that White was pro-defendant, charges that the civil rights groups say represents Ashcroft's willingness to play rational politics.
Ronnie White goes on to say, "When I was 10 years old, I stood up to bullies who made mean-spirited comments and tried to drive me away. Today, I'm here to stand up for my record, my reputation as a judge, and a citizen."
KAGAN: Bob, we're going to interrupt you so we can go ahead and listen in. I believe the hearings are ready to get started. There we see Judge Ronnie White. And I believe there's our opening statements about to begin. So let's go ahead and listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: ... defined him in a way they wanted. Those who -- they define him yet a different way.
Most importantly, your testimony may help us understand what happened, even why it did happen. And so I thank you for being here. We'll hear your testimony. but first, did you have anything you wanted to add?
And, you know, we have these lights; I think I explained the way that worked. We will have your statement, Judge, and then we'll do the usual bit, as I explained, by back and forth. You've been in legislative bodies, you're well-aware of this. But thank you for being here, sir.
JUDGE RONNIE WHITE, MISSOURI SUPREME COURT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator Hatch and all members of the Judiciary Committee for inviting me here to testify today. Thank you, twice, for voting in favor of my nomination to the federal District Court in 1999 and 1998. I appreciate this opportunity to tell my story to the United States Senate, and to reclaim my reputation as a judge and a lawyer.
It will be up to you, members of the committee, to determine what light this narrative cast on a decision you will make in voting to affirm the next attorney general of the United States.
I am the oldest son born to teenage parents. When I was born, my mother was 16-years-old and my father was 19-years-old. My mother dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to take care of me. My father worked in the post office, first as a mail sorter and then as station manager. As I grew up, I watched my mother and father work hard, play by the rules and never quite make ends meet. We lived in a unfinished basement home with jagged concrete walls and without a kitchen or bathroom.
I grew up in a segregated neighborhood in St. Louis. When I was 10-years-old, I was bused to a grade school in south St. Louis, where kids would throw milk and food at us, and tell us to go back to where we came from.
This racism only strengthened my determination. I was not going to let my color, the color of my skin or the ignorance or the hatefulness of others hold me back. I would get the best education I could and I would use that education to make a better life for myself and for my family and for my community.
My parents could not afford to pay for my education. Since age 11, I have always worked to earn money. I sold newspapers for half- cents each and I worked as a janitor at a fast-food restaurant. I worked my way through high school, college and law school. Although balancing work and school was not always easy, I struggled through it and made it.
I have earned my good reputation as a lawyer and a judge by earning the respect of my neighbors. I was elected to the Missouri legislature in 1989. And when I was in the legislature, I was twice selected to be chairman of the judiciary committee. As chair of this committee, I worked with my legislative colleagues, members of the executive branch and citizens and law enforcement officials to strengthen the laws and the application of those laws on behalf of the people of my state.
In 1994, I was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals by the late governor, Mel Carnahan. One year later, Governor Carnahan appointed me to the Missouri Supreme Court. It is the law in Missouri that state Supreme Court judges are voted on by the people after they have been appointed.
I came up for a retention vote in 1996 and received more than 1 million votes. I was the first African-American to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court, the first in the 175 year history of the court.
Born into segregation, I broke this color barrier.
The high point of my professional life came in 1998, when President Bill Clinton nominated me to the federal District Court at the suggestion of then Congressman William Clay.
What an amazing feeling for a young man from the inner city of St. Louis. At that moment, I felt that I was living the American dream. If you work hard, no matter your race, class or creed, you can succeed. This is what my parents and million of hard working families throughout this great country dream of for their kids.
However, even though the American Bar Association gave me a unanimous qualified rating, my nomination was not confirmed. I was approved twice by this committee, by votes of 15-3 and 12-6. But I was voted down by the United States Senate at the urging of Senator John Ashcroft.
What happened? When I came before this committee, I was introduced by Senator Kit Bond, who urged my confirmation. Congressman Clay also introduced me and reported to this committee that Senator Ashcroft had polled my colleagues on the Supreme Court -- all of whom he had appointed when he was governor -- and that they spoke highly of me and said I would make an outstanding federal judge.
After the hearing, we received additional follow-up questions from Senator Ashcroft. The other nominees were asked six questions. I was asked those questions and an additional 15. I answered all of those questions in a full and timely manner. And then, I learned that Senator Ashcroft was opposing me. I was surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me pro-criminal with a tremendous bent towards criminal activity. That he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order.
LEAHY: Inflammatory charges -- and they are charges that have always troubled me. And I was concerned in the two days and hours and hours of hearings that Senator Ashcroft never disavowed that language. He had a lot of opportunities to do so in answers to questions by Senator Durbin and a number of others here.
In fact, I went back and re-read the three cases in which he convinced his colleagues, his Republican colleagues, to vote against you on October 5. That was the time when they all came out of the Republican caucus in a party line vote that I had never seen before, in a case like this voted to not allow you to go on the federal bench.
And I hope senators will read those cases themselves or consider the two columns written by the noted conservative columnist, Stuart Taylor, in National Journal over the last two years on these decisions. And I will be inserting those and some other items in the record.
So I've thought about this. It has troubled me for really more than a year. I still don't understand what motivated Senator Ashcroft to fight so hard to have your nomination defeated. I've gone over and over the record. I've talked to him about it.
I have found something interesting...
KAGAN: We're going to interrupt Sen. Leahy just for a second just to show you that we have our eyes all over Washington. The other picture in the top right of your screen, of course, President-elect George W. Bush. He is kicking off his inaugural activities addressing the Republican National Committee, GOP leaders. We're going to keep a listen in on that for you while we go ahead and go back to the Ashcroft hearings. And let's listen more now to Sen. Leahy.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
LEAHY: This contributes to my decision to vote against the nomination. I wasn't sure what he was talking about so I went back to some of the questions that he had submitted to you -- written questions. He asked about a vote you had questioned. So I'd ask you about that.
That vote that he asked you about was a vote on restrictive anti- abortion legislation that then Governor Ashcroft was supporting. Is that correct?
WHITE: That's correct.
LEAHY: And do you recall what happened in that incident?
WHITE: Yes, Mr. Chairman. I was asked this question by Senator Ashcroft regarding that. And here was the answer I gave. The question was: "I understand that while you served in the state legislature, you called an unscheduled vote that resulted in the defeat of a measure designed to limit abortions. Could you please provide the details of this incident?"
Here was my answer: As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I promise to sponsor the legislation, that I would give him a hearing date that was convenient for a majority of the committee members. On the evening in question, the bill sponsor repeatedly demanded that we take up his bill. I objected and stated that we would hear the bill at a later time, after I had had an opportunity to notify all the committee members. The bill sponsor continued to disrupt the committee by speaking loudly without being recognized by the chair. This conduct persisted for at least 15 minutes. Finally, I recognized a committee member who made a motion to bring up the bill. This motion was seconded. And a vote was taken which defeated the measure by a tie vote.
This drastic action only occurred as a result of the unruly behavior of the bill sponsor. There was no attempt to deceive the committee members not present by taking a vote behind their backs.
LEAHY: This was -- so the sponsor of the bill, which then Governor Ashcroft supported, as I understand.
WHITE: I believe that's correct.
LEAHY: He insisted you bring it up. When you brought it up, he lost in a tie vote. Do you think this is something that happened years and years ago in a legislative body where people for and against and issue voted on it -- do you think this contributed to Senator Ashcroft's efforts -- as it turned out successful efforts -- to derail your nomination to the federal bench.
WHITE: Senator, I don't exactly what Senator Ashcroft concerns were, but it caused me a concern when I receive the additional questions, and he specifically asked about that legislation in 1992. And what I've said to you this morning are the facts surrounding that.
LEAHY: Judge White, you served on the committee -- I mean on the bench -- with a number of justices who were appointed by then-Governor Ashcroft. LEAHY: Is that correct?
WHITE: That's correct.
LEAHY: You have had a number of death penalty cases that have come before the court. Do you know how often you have voted the same way, either to uphold or to remand death penalty cases -- how many times you've voted in conjunction with those appointed by then- Governor Ashcroft?
WHITE: I don't have the specific numbers, Mr. Chairman, but I believe that it's about 75 percent of the time. As the numbers indicate, there are 41 of 56 or 58 cases where I have voted to affirm the death penalty.
LEAHY: Would it surprise you if I told you that a survey done independently finds that you voted with the Ashcroft appointees 95 percent of the time?
WHITE: Well, not really, because there is not that much variation on those death penalty cases.
LEAHY: So if you're so completely out of step, they've got to be a bit out of step too. I mean, that's my point.
And the fact is, on the case that we keep hearing about, this gruesome murder case, is it not a fact that you were not trying to release the person charged with murder; you were just trying to make sure he got a fair trial. Is that correct?
WHITE: That's correct. What I was trying to do was to make sure that the defendant had competent counsel before there was any talk of punishment. And in that case, I urged a new trial so that he could get competent counsel.
LEAHY: And in your experience, is there any question that in a case like that, if he was found guilty, a jury would in all likelihood recommend the death penalty and that death penalty would be upheld?
WHITE: I believe so.
LEAHY: Thank you.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Justice White, welcome to the committee, we're happy to have you back before the committee.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
HATCH: And I have a lot of respect for what you went through in your life and how you came up the hard way, how hard you worked. As a former janitor myself, I understand a little bit about that. But let me tell you, I have a lot of respect for you personally.
(CROSSTALK) SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: It's hard to hear back here.
LEAHY: I know that we're having trouble with the sound system.
HATCH: I don't know how to make it work any better.
I just have two questions in a bit, but maybe I ought to clear up -- to your knowledge, did Senator Ashcroft ever actually state that you were calling for Mr. Johnson's release, this fellow who had killed four people?
WHITE: TO my knowledge, he did not.
Now I know that, you know, ten lawyers can look at a statute and have ten different opinions, and interpret the law in different ways, and that's even true with two letter words. You know, I mean, we can always get into fights among lawyers. But when you said, referring to your dissent in Johnson (ph), that, quote, "I based my opinion on sound and settled constitutional law as handed by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington," unquote, is it not true that you were the only justice on your court who came to that conclusion in that particularly heinous case? And all the other justices, whether appointed by a Republican or a Democrat, disagreed with your interpretation of the Supreme Court settled law?
WHITE: I was the only judge who came to that conclusion, but all of the judges agreed that the defendant had incompetent counsel. Yet, those judges in the majority didn't get to the prejudice part, where I did. And my separation from them was, I believed that I was following the probable result standard set out in Strickland v. Washington, versus the outcome determinative result that they were...
HATCH: I understand.
Those are the only questions I wanted to ask you. And, again, happy to have you before the committee and I want you treated fairly, as always.
LEAHY: Senator Kennedy?
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Justice White, welcome. And I want to thank you very much for agreeing to appear before the committee. I know it's not easy to continue to relive this long ordeal.
KENNEDY: Let me ask you, did Senator Ashcroft ever raise these issues with you prior to the vote in 1999?
WHITE: No, he did not, Senator.
KENNEDY: Did he ever give you the opportunity, which you have here today, to be able to explain these positions, or to discuss these positions prior to the time of the vote? Did he ever call you in and let you know what his problems were and ask you for an explanation, give you a reasonable opportunity to answer these kinds of charges that he made against you on the Senate floor?
WHITE: Senator Kennedy, the only question that he gave me an opportunity to respond to was the question about the pro-anti-choice bill in 1992. I never had an opportunity to discuss the Johnson case.
KENNEDY: Do you have any idea about why Senator Ashcroft would say -- make these charges about your judicial record that were inaccurate? Do you believe you know the reasons why he opposed your candidacy so vociferously?
WHITE: Senator Kennedy, I don't know exactly what his reasons were, and I'm just trying to lay out the facts and circumstances surrounding the rejection of my nomination, as I believe them to be. I don't know what's in his mind or what's in his heart, so I wouldn't want to speculate on that.
KENNEDY: Could you just make a brief comment on these kinds of accusations about being pro-criminal, against prosecutors, against maintaining law and order? What's your own view? What's your own attitude? That's an open-ended question, but maybe you could do it, if you could reasonably briefly because of time.
WHITE: I believe that Senator John Ashcroft seriously distorted my record. But I believe that the question for the Senate is whether these misrepresentations are consistent with fair play and justice that you all would require of the U.S. attorney general, and that would be my position on that.
KENNEDY: Well, I'd like to make just a couple of more points. We hear a lot of talk these days about what's being called the politics of personal destruction, but what happened to you is 10 times worse than anything that's happened to Senator Ashcroft in the current controversy. In my view, what happened to you is the ugliest thing that's happened to any nominee in all my years in the United States Senate. Your record in the Missouri Supreme Court was grossly distorted by Senator Ashcroft. He tried to use your record on death penalty cases to help win his hotly-contested Senate seat in Missouri against Governor Carnahan. And most of us have rarely witnessed so much instant genuine public outrage over what happened so unfairly to you.
So it's taken considerable courage for you to come here today, Judge White. I'm pleased that you are here because you've helped to put a very personal and very human face on a very serious injustice.
Mr. Chairman, I have no further questions.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
LEAHY: Thank you very much.
The senior senator from Pennsylvania?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Is it appropriate to call you judge or justice?
WHITE: It's judge, Senator.
WHITE: But I'll answer by either one.
SPECTER: In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court -- or those are called justices, and the lower courts are called judge. But they call you judge?
WHITE: They call us judges. It sounds a lot more important when you say justice. But in Missouri, we're judges, and the chief judge is justice.
SPECTER: OK, Judge White, thank you for coming here today. And I think it is useful and appropriate that you've had a chance to state your position.
The question which we're focusing here is -- and I think you put it well when you said whether it's consistent with fair play and justice in evaluating Senator Ashcroft's qualifications to be attorney general of the United States.
I think at the outset it ought to be noted publicly that the Senate does not deliberate a great deal on United States District Court judges. That's an unhappy fact of life because of our work load.
And the same applies to the courts of appeals, and these are very, very important positions. When there is a nomination for Supreme Court of the United States, there is a lot of attention. You sort of sometimes judge the attention by the number of television cameras which show up.
SPECTER: As you probably noted from your own hearing, there were very few senators present. Customarily there is the presiding senator, and sometimes not even a ranking member of the other side. So that, unless there is some extraordinary incident we, the Senate, does not pay as much attention to the specifics on this confirmation process as it should.
And what happened in your case was that the matter came to a head candidly at the very last minute. And really, in sort of surprising circumstances.
HARRIS: You're listening now to Sen. Arlen Specter asking his questions there in Sen. John Ashcroft's confirmation hearing. But we've got our eye on at least four or five other things happening in Washington. Let's start here and go counterclockwise, beginning in the upper right there with the lady in red. That is Donna Shalala, the current secretary of health and human services. That hearing is for the current nominee for that position. That is Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Also, to the left of her, as you see there, Sen. Arlen Specter. That is the John Ashcroft hearing that we've been listening to this morning. And then just below him, that is Spencer Abraham, Sen. Abraham. He is now in his hearing. And he is being nominated to run the Energy Department. And we're also keeping an ear open just to see if anything interesting comes out of that.
Now, while all that's going on, you see the man to the right of that screen. That, of course, is the president-elect, George W. Bush. He is in Washington at this hour. In the first of his inaugural weekend activities, he is speaking to the Republican National Committee, thanking supporters there for carrying him all the way to the White House. We're keeping our ear tuned to that speech. And if anything notable comes out of that, we will deliver it for you. But before the president-elect was there, he was talking with our Candy Crowley. And she actually got some face time with the president- elect. And you see some tape from that interview there she conducted with him a little while ago. And we'll be bringing that to you later. It's feeding its way in to our bureau right now. And once we get the whole thing in and go over it, we'll have that for you as well.
So stay with us. Lots more to come. Back to the hearings.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
LEAHY: And I studied her record carefully and knew her to some extent and thought she was qualified for the position. And Sen. Ashcroft and others on this committee thought she was not. And we had some very heated hearings on her sentencing policies.
And I had a very sharp disagreement with Senator Hatch who presided at the hearings because she had gone through 50 cases and answered questions and then came in and was confronted with 30 more cases.
And I didn't like the process and I complained about it. It didn't do me any good, but I complained about it. But at the end of that event, I did not question Senator Ashcroft's motives. He thought she was not qualified; I thought she was. I thought he was wrong, and she eventually withdrew. The story has a somewhat happy ending, she is now the president judge of the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia, a very distinguished position, perhaps more distinguished than being a federal district court judge.
So the question that I have for you, Judge White, is: Do you think that Senator Ashcroft was doing anything other than expressing his own honest views?
WHITE: Senator, I think he can express his own honest views. But to call me pro-criminal and with a criminal bent, and if you look at the record, the record doesn't support those views.
SPECTER: I would be inclined to agree that characterizations are not helpful, and they are hurtful. We've had a little sparring with Senator Ashcroft on a number of the things he said. He said people in the middle of the road are either moderates or dead skunks.
OK? On time? LEAHY: You're out of time, but go ahead and finish your thought.
SPECTER: OK. Well, I saw the red light on. But I want to pursue this a bit.
So let's move ahead that his language was intemperate. Do you think that's a disqualification from him being attorney general of the United States?
WHITE: I don't know what a disqualification would be, Senator. All I'm stating to you are the facts, and the fact is that Senator John Ashcroft seriously distorted my record. I believe the question is for the Senate to answer.
LEAHY: Senator, we will go back for another round.
SPECTER: Let me just ask one more question at this time.
LEAHY: I'll give extra time for that one, but then the senator from California will have, also, extra time.
SPECTER: Senator Bond concurred with Senator Ashcroft. Do you have any reason to question -- in opposing your nomination or opposing it forcefully, do you have any reason to question Senator Bond's sincerity on his own judgment?
Well, what I'm looking for, Judge White, is the sincerity of John Ashcroft and Kit Bond. They may be wrong. They may be intemperate. But looking at Ashcroft's qualifications, I raise the issue as to whether you think they were less than honest or less than sincere? And I throw Senator Bond into the mix. What do you think?
WHITE: I think the facts of my situation show that Senator Bond came before this committee and spoke very highly of me. What happened between the time I was presented to the committee by Senator Bond and the vote was taken, I don't know.
SPECTER: Thank you.
LEAHY: The senator from California -- I will try to make sure that the senator from Pennsylvania had extra time there, and we did. But I'm going to have to urge senators to try to keep -- both Senator Hatch and I kept actually under our time.
And I say that, because I know a number of senators are on other confirmation hearings, as I am, and several others are today. And they're trying to balance their time back and forth. So in fairness to all senators, we will try to keep very close to the clock. However, the senator from California, because of the balance in here, can have a little bit of extra time. Go ahead.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Judge White, good morning. WHITE: Good morning to you, Senator.
FEINSTEIN: I'd just like to extend to you my personal apology for what happened to you. I've been on this committee for eight years. I have never seen it happen before. I want you to know that many of us, particularly on our side of the aisle, were totally blind- sided by what happened. It came without warning. The letter from the National Sheriff's Association was distributed on the floor directly with no prior notice to this committee or members of this committee. And I, for one, don't feel it's necessary for anyone to go through that kind of personal humiliation.
You have had a good, positive career. And there was no reason for this to happen to you. I just want you to have my personal apology for what did happen.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
FEINSTEIN: During the floor statement on your nomination, Senator Ashcroft said the following, and I quote from the record: "Judge White has been more liberal on the death penalty during his tenure than any other judge in the Missouri Supreme Court. He has dissented in death penalty cases more than any other judge during his tenure. He has written or joined in three times as many dissents in death penalty cases. And apparently it is unimportant how gruesome or egregious the facts or how clear the evidence of guilt," end quote.
Is this a fair representation of your record? For example, have you written or joined in three times as many dissents in death penalty cases as any other Missouri Supreme Court justice?
WHITE: Senator, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I don't believe that that's correct.
FEINSTEIN: Well, I do have the numbers. Let me just find them here. I have the percentages.
I think a review of the record shows that you supported death penalty convictions slightly more than the average Missouri Supreme Court justice. You voted over 70 percent of the time to uphold death sentences. And I believe you wrote several majority opinions enforcing a death penalty verdict.
The percentage of votes for reversal of a death sentence by Missouri Supreme Court justices were: Ed Thomas (ph) -- and I recognized that he's deceased -- 47 percent; White (ph), 29 percent; Holstein (ph), 25 percent; Price, 24 percent; Benton (ph), 24 percent; and Limbaugh (ph), 22 percent.
Would you concur with those figures?
WHITE: Again, Senator, I don't know the numbers. And some of the members of court have been there a little bit longer than me, so the numbers may be skewed a bit.
But I would say this: When judging a case, I try to look at the facts of the case and the standard of law that we must apply. And I try not to run around with a score card to determine how many times I'm on this side or that side.
And in every case that comes before me for determination, I give my best on that case. And if the numbers show that, then that's what the numbers show.
FEINSTEIN: Let me speak about the Kinder case for a moment. In the floor statement on October the 5th, Senator Ashcroft said the following: "Ronnie White wrote a dissent saying that Missouri v. Kinder was contaminated by a racial bias of the trial judge because that trial judge had indicated that he opposed affirmative action and had switched parties based on that."
Would you describe that as a fair reading of your dissent in Kinder?
WHITE: No, it's not, Senator. But to get an understanding of my dissent, I think it's proper to read the statement that the trial judge made. And if I may?
FEINSTEIN: Please do.
WHITE: In pertinent part, the judge said: "The truth is that I have noticed in recent years that the Democratic Party places too much emphasis on representing minorities, such as homosexuals, people who don't want to work, and people with a skin that's any color other than white. While minorities needed to be represented, of course, I believe the time has come for us to place much more emphasis and concern on the hard working taxpayers in this country."
And what I said or noted in the opinion was that: "Conduct suggesting racial bias undermines the credibility of the judicial system and opens the integrity of the judicial system to question."
And I stand by that opinion today.
FEINSTEIN: I believe my time is up.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
LEAHY: The senator from Arizona, Senator Kyl.
SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I was prepared to refer to you as Justice White. That's the way it's done in my state as well. But Judge White it's a pleasure to have you here today.
First of all, I commend you for the success that you have achieved, especially given the humble background that you spoke of. You can rightly be proud of your appointment to the Missouri Supreme Court. I think it says something both about you, and would you also agree, about the man who appointed you, the late governor, Mel Carnahan.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
KYL: Would it not also say something about the governor who appointed the first African-American to the Missouri Court of Appeals?
WHITE: It's possible, yes.
KYL: And of course, you know that is Governor John Ashcroft, the first governor in the history of Missouri -- most of whom, by the way, were Democrats -- to appoint an African-American to a higher court in Missouri.
Let me say that I can understand why you are disappointed. I think you have great reason to be disappointed, perhaps even bitterly so, about your defeat in the U.S. Senate. And I personally regret that the vote had to be taken. No one enjoys voting against someone, especially someone who I am sure is trying his or her best to do the best job they can in their office. And I am sure that is precisely what motivates you.
I did want to clear up just one thing. Senator Leahy said something about the opposition coming out of the Republican caucus. And of course, Republicans did vote against your nomination. We ordinarily don't discuss what is said within our caucuses, our policy luncheons, but let me just allude to this one occasion.
We usually devote a couple of minutes to business that's going to be coming up in an afternoon or the next day or two. And John Ashcroft rose and made very brief remarks. They were subdued. He said: "I am not asking any of you to follow my lead, but since one of the votes is going to be on a Missouri judge, I felt I should at least explain to you why I will be voting no, so as not to blind side any of you."
And he spoke very briefly, primarily focusing on the impact of many law enforcement people in the state of Missouri who based their opposition on what some of them suggested were decisions that suggested that you were soft on crime.
That is an appellation, by the way, that I don't think should be used.
No one ever mentioned your race; in fact, I know that many of my colleagues when they voted were not aware of your race until after the vote.
I just want to conclude by saying, I think your record can be fairly debated. I am very troubled by some of the things that you have written, but I assure you that I do not believe that you ever intended to misapply the law, and I believe that that is Senator Ashcroft's belief as well.
WHITE: Thank you.
LEAHY: I understand the senator from Wisconsin does not have questions. Then we go to the senior senator from New York.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, Judge White.
You are obviously a soft-spoken man, a man of judicious temperament. I can see by your statement and the way you offered it, you're not trying to make points here, just telling what happened. You don't even really seem like a politician.
So I'd like to just ask you how you felt when for the first time you heard that your nomination was being called into question because you were called "soft on crime," "pro-criminal"?
WHITE: I was obviously disappointed and upset about the labeling and the name-calling. But what troubled me the most was the lack of opportunity to come in and at least talk with the senators about my record and about the cases that were called into question, and have the kind of discussion that we're having here this morning, where I would be given the chance to speak and you would be given a chance to ask me questions. That was the most troubling aspect of that.
SCHUMER: During your career in Missouri, had that been a common charge used against you, when you ran for judge, when you ran for other offices in Missouri?
WHITE: No, Senator, that was not. I had never heard the terms "pro-criminal," "criminal bent," until I heard them on the floor of the Senate on October 4, 1999.
SCHUMER: Let me ask you to comment on something I feel very strongly about here.
You know, I don't believe Senator Ashcroft is a racist, and he has appointed African-American judges and things like that. But I do feel this: I feel that, given America's long and tortured history in terms of race relations, that we have to be ever so careful about applying a double standard, a double standard which has been, well, it was the signature of Jim Crow and everything that has happened since the days of slavery. It's OK for whites to be treated one way, but blacks are treated a different way.
And I don't think this is a philosophical issue. I think every person at this table, from the most conservative to the most liberal, would agree that America must fight hard to avoid a double standard.
What I find so troubling about your nomination is not that someone would call you "soft on crime," whether it's true or not -- that's a legitimate issue to debate when we debate judges, and my views on criminal justice are decidedly moderate -- but, rather, that a different standard might be used in your nomination than for others who are not of your race.
SCHUMER: And if you look at the number of judges that Senator Ashcroft supported, who, at least when you talk to some of the people who prepared the documentation for all those judges, were clearly more liberal on criminal justice and other issues than you, but who were white, and then were voted for without any raising of any questions, it's extremely troubling. To me, it shows real insensitivity to our long and tortured history of racial relations.
And would you care to comment on that thought? Am I off base here? Do you think it applied to you? Tell me what you think.
WHITE: Senator, first let me say, I don't think Senator Ashcroft is a racist, and I wouldn't attempt to comment on what's in his mind or what's in his heart. But the answer I would give to your question is this: There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected and particularly in the African-American community. And the reason for that outrage, I believe, is that when you have an African- American judge, African-Americans see that as one more step towards true equality.
So when that judge rules, whatever way it is, there shouldn't be any hint of racism or any underhanded dealing because there is a sense that that person gives it their best. So that would be my explanation for the outrage behind my rejection.
SCHUMER: Do you think there was the feeling that a double standard was used in opposing your nomination?
SCHUMER: One final question. Because this whole episode is terribly difficult, I think, for so many of us on both sides of the aisle here.
Over the past few days, Senator Ashcroft has spoken at length about his concern for civil rights and his sensitivity to issues of race. Does anything he has said in the last few days here at this hearing give you reassurance?
WHITE: Senator, I have not really watched his testimony, but I would just say to you again, I do believe he seriously distorted my record, and I'm here this morning to attempt to try to set that record straight.
SCHUMER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
LEAHY: Thank you.
The senior senator from Ohio, Senator DeWine?
SEN. MIKE DEWINE (R), OHIO: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.
Judge White, thank you very much for coming in. We very much appreciate your testimony.
And Mr. Chairman, I do not have any questions.
LEAHY: Thank you, Senator.
The senator from Wisconsin, Senator Feingold, was at another hearing, I believe, and he's now here. Then we'll turn to the senator from Wisconsin. SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Mr. Chairman, let me just say -- I apologize to the witness. I had to introduce the governor of the state of Wisconsin to the Finance Committee, as did Senator Kohl, and I recognize the tremendous importance of your testimony, which I will read and then perhaps ask questions later.
LEAHY: Thank you. I have noted for the record that a number of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, are at a series of confirmation hearings. That's why they are not here.
Then we would go to the senior senator from Illinois, Senator Durbin.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
And Judge White, thank you for joining us.
I only wish that every member of the Senate could hear your testimony. I only wish that they could hear your life story, even those who voted against you, and reflect on the decision that they made. I hope that they would ask themselves whether the person that they would be listening to is the same person that was described by John Ashcroft on the floor of the United States Senate.
We have been asked by President-elect Bush to look into the hearts of his nominees. And during the last two days, we have entertained the testimony of Senator John Ashcroft about what is really in his heart. Over and over again, Senator Ashcroft told us that as attorney general, he would be results-oriented -- he would not be results-orientated, he would be law orientated.
In your case, he was clearly results-orientated and not law orientated. Because had he looked at the law and how you applied it, he never would have said the words he did about you on the floor of the United States Senate.
Those of us -- and I live in Missouri, a neighbor -- pardon me, in Illinois, a neighbor of Missouri -- and those of us who followed the senatorial race know what was going on there in this situation. There was a result that Senator Ashcroft was seeking. He was trying to create a death penalty issue in the Missouri senatorial campaign. Why? Because the late-governor Mel Carnahan had spared a man in death row after a personal appeal by the pope when he visited St. Louis.
And you, Judge White, were the victim of this political calculation. Your hard work through a lifetime, your good name, and your reputation were cast aside after the political calculation was made. That to me is a reflection on the heart of the man who wants to be our attorney general.
This position in the Cabinet, more than any other, is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the civil rights of Americans. We count on the law not only being there but people who will implement and enforce the law with a good heart. We have a president who will be sworn in in a few hours who has pledged to unite us and not divide us. And as we listen to your testimony, and as senator after senator apologizes for what happened to you and your good name, is there any doubt that what happened was divisive, divisive for you and your family and for America.
Yesterday, when I asked Senator Ashcroft about this he said, "Well, the law enforcement organizations were against Ronnie White -- soft on crime, not strong on the death penalty."
Judge White, when it came to the support of law enforcement organizations for your appointment to the federal district court, what is the record?
WHITE: That's not true that I was opposed to law enforcement. Senator Durbin, I have a brother-in-law who is a police officer in St. Louis. I have a cousin who is a police officer in St. Louis. I've served on boards and commissions with police officers in the St. Louis community. And I also, when I was city counselor for the city of St. Louis, was the lawyer for the St. Louis City Police Department, and we defended police officers.
As a judge, all I've tried to do is to apply the law as best I could and the way I saw it.
DURBIN: Judge White, I noted with interest during the course of this hearing that even though the grizzly details of the Johnson case and the Kinder case were brought out yesterday, nobody has mentioned them while you're sitting here. No one from the other side has brought them up. Those are grizzly details in the Johnson case. And I want you to explain why you dissented in that case. This man brutally murdered, apparently murdered, four or five people, including a sheriff in execution style, and you dissented in the question of whether or not the death penalty should have been imposed. Please explain.
WHITE: The details in any murder case are grizzly. Death in a normal consequence is really bad. But the cornerstone of our criminal justice system is a right to a fair trial. And all I was trying to get to in the Johnson case was, the lawyer's ineffective assistance to the defendant possibly affected the jury's determination in guilt and sentencing. I did not say that these facts were not awful.
WHITE: I did not say that that family didn't suffer. All I was trying to do was to ensure that Johnson had a fair trial. And in my mind, the only way you can have that is to have competent counsel, and then I think the consequences will flow from there.
DURBIN: Did you call for his release in your dissent?
WHITE: No, I did not. I just urged a retrial. But I think the impression was created that, since I voted to reverse in the case, that Johnson would be released.
And if I might say further, when we rule on a death case in Missouri, that case goes to the federal court system for review. And in writing my dissenting opinion, I was writing to the next level of review to say, "Look, there's a difference of opinion on my court about how to apply the standard in Strickland v. Washington. Help us. Tell us who's right. Am I right or are they right?" And that was all I was I trying to get to.
DURBIN: Let me close by saying this: I am very sorry for what Senator Ashcroft did to you and your reputation. And I join with my colleagues in apologizing for what happened to you before the United States Senate.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
DURBIN: Thank you.
LEAHY: The senator from Alabama, Senator Sessions.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And, Judge White, we're glad to have you here. I think it's good for this committee to allow you to share your thoughts and concerns about the way the process was for you.
I agree with you that this gaggle of blow-hards sitting in this Senate are not particularly good at making these decisions. I've seen a lot of decisions come out of this committee that I haven't been happy with, but it is a system. And they do vote and that's it. And we have to live with it.
And you're blessed, I think, with the ability to remain as justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, a great and august position. I hope that you will enjoy it. And I hope that you would not succumb to, as some suggested, bitterness or ill feeling. It looks like you're not.
WHITE: No, Senator Sessions, I'm not bitter at all.
SESSIONS: You've got a great career. You've had a good career. And we validate that.
I've been a prosecutor for 15-plus years. I feel strongly about those issues.
John Ashcroft was attorney general for quite a number of years. John was attorney general and I was a prosecutor during the time this country began to refigure what we were doing about criminal justice.
It seemed more and more that the law schools were teaching that this was almost like a game. A judge was sort of like a umpire or referee. And he threw the flag for minor or insignificant offenses by the police, calling for retrial for defendants to be released.
There's some intellectual support still alive today for that. People still believe in that, that we are insufficiently protective today since we've changed. I don't. I believe firmly that we need to focus on guilt and innocence, and we ought not to be so focused on errors that had little or no impact on the outcome of the trial. And a lot of reasons I think that was -- and I've looked at a number of your opinions, and I think your views may be consistent with quite a body of intellectual and liberal thought on crime in America. It's not what I would want.
And John Ashcroft voted for 26 of 27 judges that were African- American that President Clinton put up. His problem was you were his judge, and his sheriffs, 77 of them, had opposed you, chiefs' of police association opposed you, prosecutors.
I feel an obligation, implicit in my election, was that I would watch to make sure that the federal judges that are appointed are going to be fair to the police officers and sheriffs and prosecutors I served with. Do you think you could understand John's approach, that that may have been a factor in his thinking?
WHITE: I can understand his approach, but I can't understand his distortion of my record.
SESSIONS: Well, you know, it's a difference of opinion. Like in the Kinder case that was alleged here, this judge made some insensitive, maybe, at best, remarks. Perhaps this judge may have even been subject to censure. Was he ever censured, do you know?
WHITE: No, he was never censured.
SESSIONS: Subject to censure. But what troubled me was, you reversed his decision, saying that actual fairness of the trial was not sufficient, that even though there was no showing that he made a single error against the defendant, you voted to reverse his case. That troubled me. Would you like to comment on that?
WHITE: Yes, Senator, because in my mind, his comments created a sense of judicial bias from the outset. When he made these statements about five or six days before trial, then he goes into court and says, "I can be a fair and impartial judge."
And I will say to you, as you know, a judge is a judge all the time. And you don't stop being a judge in one instance and be a judge in the next.
SESSIONS: Well, I would disagree. I would believe that if the judge conducted a fair trial, there was not one hint that he did anything to bias that case, the case should not be reversed.
I was aware of some of the programs that were set up, put up a sign, "Drug dealers are going to be stopped ahead." And what they found was, drug dealers would stop and make U-turns in the street and things like that, and police would stop them, and they wouldn't excessively -- they wouldn't just search their car based on that, they would make inquiries and sometimes ask the occupant of the car if they could search the car.
You voted in dissent, I believe, that that procedure was unfair because the highway traveler would be tricked. That troubled me. Well, I see my time is up. I won't get into the Johnson case except to say, those were, would you not agree, some skilled attorneys that were defending him. Those are retained attorneys with Mr. Inge (ph), had 10 years of practice, teaches criminal law. And another lawyer, Mr. Bly (ph), was an active litigator, having won awards and done some teaching. It was a pretty good group of retained attorneys, was it not?
WHITE: Well, one of the lawyers was basically a solo lawyer, and I think that the public defenders in Missouri have substantial experience, probably more experience than private attorneys in handling death penalty cases because they handle many more.
SESSIONS: Well, Mr. Inge (ph) teaches criminal practice skill courses for the criminal law section of the Missouri Bar Association. He received an award from the Criminal Defense Bar, the Host Award from the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He was a member of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers for 14 years, sat on the board of directors, and currently serves as vice president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. This was a quality civil attorney. He was a good partner, I would suggest. Plus a third attorney, Christine Carpenter (ph), who apparently has good skills. I don't think they were...
WHITE: I mean, that's why these errors don't make any sense. I mean, you had all that skill and record there, when all they had to do was pick up the phone, contact the witnesses and try to figure it out.
SESSIONS: My view was, they just simply put on a defense that was proven unfounded, and the jury found...
LEAHY: Could we -- I don't mean to interrupt, but we've gone considerably over time, and I'm trying, again, at the request of senators on both sides, I've been trying to keep on time.
The senator from Wisconsin, Senator Feingold.
FEINGOLD: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Justice White, again, thanks for being here. I now have had an opportunity to read your statement. I'm told by my colleagues that hearing it is even more moving than certainly simply reading it is. And I want to join Senator Durbin in the apology.
WHITE: Thank you.
FEINGOLD: The rejection of your nomination was unjustified. And I particularly regret that it was an entirely partisan vote.
I think we were all shocked and the more I, of course, read about some of the facts, it is a regrettable moment in the Senate. And, at a minimum, I'm glad that you have an opportunity here to get the record straight on some of these points.
In fact, just as a brief response to Senator Sessions' characterization of the comments of the trial judge in the Kinder case, the notion that these remarks here are insensitive at best is something I would take issue with. A direct contrasting of minorities with the hardworking taxpayers in this country, to me, isn't beyond insensitive, and I simply wish to make, on the record, the remark that I think that these are shocking remarks for a trial judge.
SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, may I correct myself?
SESSIONS: I think insensitive -- I meant to say insensitive at worst. They were very bad comments that...
FEINGOLD: Excuse me, Mr. Sessions...
SESSIONS: ... and I didn't...
FEINGOLD: ... they were insensitive at worst, I think they go...
SESSIONS: I didn't say that and I apologize for any inaccurate...
FEINGOLD: ... well beyond that.
FEINGOLD: My apology for getting that wrong. I find it hard to imagine these words simply being called insensitive at worst. The hardworking people of Wisconsin would consider them to be far beyond insensitive.
Mr. Chairman, one item that I assume you'd like to set the record straight on is that, in opposing your nomination to the federal bench, Senator Ashcroft was highly critical of your dissent in a case called State v. DeMask (ph). This was a Fourth Amendment case that the Missouri Supreme Court decided in 1996 and you offered the dissenting opinion.
The case addressed the constitutionality of drug interdiction check points in two Missouri counties. Police officers dressed in camouflage were stopping motorists in the dark of the night at the end of a lonely exit ramp and looking for evidence to allow them to search the vehicles for drugs.
The majority of the Missouri Supreme Court decided that these stops were constitutional but you dissented. You agreed with you and your colleagues that trafficking in illegal drugs is a national problem of the most-severe kind and you agreed that traffic stops such as these could be conducted in a reasonable way. But you found that these particular checkpoint operations were not conducted in a reasonable way and were, therefore, unconstitutional.
And then just a few months ago, a case with facts very similar to the Missouri case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In the City of Indianapolis v. Edmund (ph), the U.S. Supreme Court found that drug interdiction checkpoints like the ones that were upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court are unconstitutional. The Edmund (ph) case makes clear that the police may not set up roadblocks in the hope of interdicting drugs or detecting some other criminal wrongdoing. In fact, the United States went in even farther in protecting the rights of motorists than you were prepared to go in your dissent. But I don't think anybody really considers the Rehnquist court to be pro- criminal.
In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, would you agree that the majority decision in DeMask (ph) would now be considered bad law?
WHITE: That's correct, Senator. In fact, I was vindicated by the United States Supreme Court by their decision when they said those kind of checkpoints were unconstitutional.
FEINGOLD: Thank you again, and thank you, Mr. Chairman.
LEAHY: Thank you, Senator Feingold.
The senator from Kansas, Senator Brownback.
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and welcome, Justice White. Delighted to have you here at the committee.
I heard your opening statement. I was watching it and it was very powerful. A real success story of pulling yourself up by the boot straps in very difficult circumstances and conditions, and I applaud that. I applaud what you've attained and what you're doing and what you continue to do.
I appreciate as well your willingness to come here and testify in a difficult circumstance and condition that we've got as we're trying to review and to look at one of the former members of our body making the move from a legislative branch to an executive branch position, from one that makes decisions voting on judges to one on enforcing the law. And there are different qualifications and criteria that people look at in those sorts of shifts.
Where John Ashcroft was in your state, was attorney general for two terms in your state, there are no allegations that he didn't enforce the law and bring it forth with equal justice, the head of the attorney general's association, National Attorney General's Association, in enforcing law.
So while they are points, I think, that have been validly made. I think we're looking at now, what would a person do in enforcing the law and would they do that equally and fairly.
And while I think you raise legitimate points about your confirmation, there is also concerns that were being raised at that time about support for you from the law enforcement community or lack of support, really, thereof. And here was, you know, a key area where the law enforcement community need to have comfort as well in your abilities as a judge in that particular condition.
So I appreciate very much your background, the words and the information you bring in front of us. There were challenges -- legitimate ones, I think, at that time -- ones that can be questioned. But when you look at a lifetime appointment to the bench, you really weigh those carefully and look at them cautiously when considering that lifetime appointment.
And I have no doubt that you're going to continue in a great role in public service. And after the difficult circumstances, after today, we will all move on forward, and you will serve well and serve with distinction.
But those questions being raised at that time on a lifetime appointment I think caused a number of people pause.
Thank you for being here today.
Mr. Chairman, I have no questions.
WHITE: Thank you, Senator.
LEAHY: I will put into the record an editorial from the St. Louis Post Dispatch in which they quote Charles Blackbar (ph), retired Supreme Court judge, who called Senator Ashcroft's attack on Judge White...
KAGAN: While Sen. Leahy goes ahead and reads that editorial, we thought this would be a good time to take a look at what else we're covering here in Washington today, other confirmation hearings. We have at the top of your screen Ashcroft's hearing, of course. To the right, Tommy Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin, up for health and human services secretary. And at the bottom, it looks like there's a little recess there as they look at Spencer Abraham, the former senator from the state of Michigan up for energy secretary.
KAGAN: And now we're going to go ahead and rejoin the confirmation hearing on John Ashcroft. There's Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Today the focus is the main witness, Judge Ronnie White, a state Supreme Court justice from Missouri. Let's go ahead and continue to listen.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
HATCH: I think you've been more gracious here towards Sen. Ashcroft than some of our colleagues, and I just want to compliment you for it...
WHITE: Thank you.
HATCH: ... and let you know that I respect you for it. And I appreciate you being here and accept your testimony. That's it.
WHITE: Thank you, Sen. Hatch.
LEAHY: If there are no further questions, the committee will...
SPECTER: Mr. Chairman, I didn't finish.
LEAHY: I'm sorry.
SPECTER: Are we going to have a second round?
LEAHY: I just asked (OFF-MIKE). But if there are no further questions, the committee will stand recess for a few minutes to allow the staff to set up the tables for the next one. Thank you.
KAGAN: And we go ahead and rejoin the hearings just as they decide to go ahead and take a break. It's been an interesting morning, indeed, as the Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White from the state of Missouri gave his testimony about what happened, from his version, in 1999 when his nomination to go up to the federal bench was scuttled, a move that was led by then-Sen. John Ashcroft.
Let's go ahead and bring in Jeanne Meserve and our Bob Franken, I think also standing by. I'll just throw this one out to you. Interesting testimony from the judge giving his version of events, saying he didn't appreciate in any bit and didn't like what was done to his reputation and what was said about him. But he came flat out and he said he does not believe John Ashcroft is a racist.
MESERVE: That's true, Daryn. And he certainly was given several opportunities to say that he was, but, no, he declined to do that, saying, I don't know what's in his heart and in his mind. He did say, however, quite forcefully and repeatedly that he felt John Ashcroft had distorted his record. And he said, I want to reclaim my reputation as I judge and as a lawyer. And then he laid out what had happened to him and his records on capital punishment cases in particular. And there was a lot of reference to one particular case, Missouri vs. Johnson.
Bob Franken, if you're there can you tell us the specifics about that particular case.
FRANKEN: Jeanne, I'm sorry, we're having technical problems. We'll have to get back to that. I can barely hear you, OK?
MESERVE: OK, sorry about that, Bob. I'll talk about it a little bit then.
MESERVE: He was a Vietnam War veteran who went on a shooting binge. Four people were killed in the course of that, including a sheriff's wife. There was a defense presented, saying that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
FRANKEN: No, it's faded. It has gone down from barely... MESERVE: And there was some problem with that. It turns out that some of the things they'd attributed to James Johnson, things like establishing a perimeter around his house to keep out intruders, in fact was something that had been done by law enforcement, not by James Johnson himself.
So this became quite controversial. And it was the viewpoint of Ronnie White that he had inadequate counsel and that there ought to be a new trial. His feeling is that John Ashcroft has misrepresented this and indicated that what he wanted was for this man to go free, Ronnie White saying today, no, that wasn't his intention whatsoever.
Interesting day. Some of the strongest statements came not from Ronnie White, but from members of the Senate. We heard Sen. Kennedy call this one of the ugliest things that has happened to any nominee in all his years in the Senate. That a reference to the Senate's decision to reject the Ronnie White nomination to the federal bench. Many senators expressed their apologies. All of those, however, don't -- senators from the Democratic side of the aisle.
Bob, have we resolved our communications problems? Can you hear us up there?
KAGAN: Do we have Bob Franken? Is Bob Franken ready to go?
MESERVE: Well, apparently he's not.
KAGAN: Bob's having a -- Jeanne, I also thought it was interesting in listening to the comments and to the questioning of the judge, asking him flat out, did he think whether what happened to him was enough reason not to let John Ashcroft be the next attorney general? And he deflected that as well and said, that's not my decision. I believe that's your role as senators. I'm just here to tell you what happened to me.
MESERVE: That's right, he did say that. But at another point when he was talking about the distortions he felt John Ashcroft has made to his record, he said, is that consistent with the principles of fair play and justice which you require of a U.S. attorney general? As on the instance of race, Ronnie White refusing to really make a strong statement as some perhaps would have liked him to make, but certainly raising questions which the senators will have to consider.
Also, to put this in some context, the Ronnie White case is just one of several things that have been raised in John Ashcroft's record by many people, questioning his commitment to civil rights. There was talk yesterday about some of those other things, including desegregation of the schools in St. Louis and so forth. And Ashcroft defended himself by saying that he had, in fact, appointed many African Americans to the bench while he was governor, saying that he actually had a very good record on upholding civil rights law -- Daryn.
KAGAN: The other -- one of the other issues, a couple other issues on his civil rights record, both his role when he was attorney general of Missouri, of desegregation in St. Louis and how that was handled through the courts, as well as has appearance recently at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. And, of course, in the wake of last year's election, we know how that's become a controversial place with its former stance on interracial dating.
MESERVE: That's right. And also asked about an interview he gave to a publication called "Southern Partisan" magazine, which has been branded by some as being a racist publication.
Here we see Ronnie White exiting the committee room. I think we'd hoped that he would stop for the microphones. He decided not to do that, having just been quizzed by the senators for something like an hour and a half.
He is not the last person we're going to hear from today. They're setting up that committee room now to hear from another panel. Let me tell you who's on there. We're going to hear from a former Missouri Supreme Court justice. We're going to hear from Harriet Woods. She was Democratic lieutenant governor under John Ashcroft. She opposes his nomination to be attorney general. Frank Sussman Esquire (ph). He's a Democrat who was involved in a court case Ashcroft brought against nurses in a family planning case. Also Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood, of course, Ashcroft's stand on matters of abortion and birth control being something that has been brought up.
MESERVE: We're going to bring you that next panel in just a moment. Right now, we're going to take a break.
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