WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General designee John Ashcroft asked the U.S. Senate on Tuesday to approve his nomination to lead the Justice Department as he tried to refute concerns that he would be incapable of upholding laws that ran contrary to his conservative Christian beliefs.
"For me, the law is about the promise of justice," the former Missouri Republican senator said in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which commenced three days of confirmation hearings for Ashcroft on Tuesday afternoon. "All men and all women, all people are equal.
"In my years as a public servant," Ashcroft said forcefully, "Eighteen of those years have been focused on enforcing the law, six years on enacting the law."
The 18 years to which the embattled designee spoke referred to his tenure as attorney general and governor of Missouri. The subsequent six covered his one term in the Senate, which came to an end in November, when he lost his re-election bid to the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. Carnahan was killed in a small plane crash three weeks before Election Day.
"I know the difference between enacting and enforcing the law," Ashcroft said. "It means advancing the nation's interest, not advocating my personal interest."
With the opening of the Judiciary Committee's high-profile hearings, members of the panel's short-term majority lined up even before Ashcroft uttered his first words to take their shots. Many committee Democrats said they had grave concerns about Ashcroft's willingness to uphold laws he might find objectionable.
Ashcroft opposes abortion rights except when a woman's life is in danger, and while in the Senate, he pushed for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. He opposed measures to give racial preferences to minorities, and his opposition to the 1999 nomination of a black Missouri Supreme Court justice to the federal bench has drawn renewed criticism from civil rights groups.
"The position of attorney general is of extreme importance," said temporary panel Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat. "The attorney general needs the full confidence of the president, and needs the full confidence and trust of the American people."
Critics of Ashcroft's nomination were expected to focus on his years in the Senate and his tenure as Missouri's governor and attorney general. Ashcroft will be the sole witness for the first two days of hearings. Thursday, the Senate is expected to hear from Ronnie White, the Missouri jurist whose nomination Ashcroft derailed.
"The attorney general plays a role in bringing people together," Leahy said. "But Sen. Ashcroft has often taken aggressively activist positions on a number of issues that deeply divide the American people. He had a right to take these positions, but we also have a right and duty to evaluate how these positions will affect his conduct as attorney general."
Speaking in support of his former Republican colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he had no doubt that Ashcroft would be able to cast his personal preferences aside in favor of upholding the law.
Hatch reclaims the committee gavel next week, after the inauguration of President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who will become president of the Senate and serve as the tie-breaking vote in the equally divided chamber. With Vice President Al Gore still in office, the Senate has been controlled by Democrats since early this month.
"I know you, and I am familiar with your 30-year record in enforcing and upholding the law," Hatch said, casting an intense gaze toward Ashcroft, who sat in his witness chair.
"I feel a great source of comfort in your nomination," Hatch said, praising Ashcroft's record as Missouri governor and attorney general, and as a one-term senator.
Ashcroft, Hatch said, "has been a leader" for crime victims' rights, helped to enact violence against women statutes, signed a Missouri hate crimes bill into law and "plans on making America a safer place to live."
But Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts jumped on Ashcroft with the very first lines of his opening statements, accusing him of using his public offices to advance his own personal, ideological and religious views.
Ashcroft is a conservative Christian, and many who have expressed concern over his designation have hinted that someone with such a worldview might be incapable of enforcing laws that are in direct violation of Christian doctrine -- most notably laws guaranteeing access to abortion.
"During Sen. Ashcroft's quarter-century of public service, he has taken strong positions on a range of important issues in the range of the Justice Department," Kennedy said. "Unfortunately and often he has used the power of his high office to advance his personal views in spite of the law of the land."
Kennedy said Ashcroft worked against school desegregation efforts in St. Louis and was one of the chief "architects of the right's ongoing strategy to dismantle Roe v. Wade and abolish a woman's right to choose."
"Many of us respect his ability on the issues and his intense commitment to the principles he believes in," Kennedy said. "We know that while serving in high office, he has time and again aggressively used litigation and legislation in creative and inappropriate ways to advance his political and ideological goals.
"How can we have any confidence at all that he will not do the same thing with the vast new powers he will have at his disposal as attorney general?" Kennedy asked.
Ashcroft: 'Law is supreme'
Ashcroft was adamant in his insistence that he should be confirmed as attorney general, saying his primary personal belief is the "law is supreme."
"I don't place myself above the law, and I won't place myself above the law. It would be against my beliefs to do it," he said.
"I look upon the position of attorney general with an awesome sense of responsibility," Ashcroft said in his introductory remarks. "If I am confirmed, on my shoulders will rest the responsibility of upholding American justice ... protection of the weak, freedom for the restrained, liberty to the oppressed and security to every citizen.
"I understand the responsibility of the attorney general's office. I revere it, I am humbled by it," Ashcroft said. "I will spend every waking moment, and I expect some sleeping ones, guaranteeing the Justice Department upholds its heritage.
"The attorney general must realize this," Ashcroft continued. "The language of justice is not the reality of justice for many Americans. There are millions of Americans who wonder if injustice means 'just us.'
"Injustice in America against any individual must not stand," he said.
President-elect George W. Bush's designee then addressed some of the more specific concerns of his critics, saying his vote against the confirmation of White to a lifetime appointment on the federal bench had to do with White's record, "not his race."
"Some have suggested that my opposition to the appointment of Ronnie White was based on something other than my own honest assessment of his qualifications for the post," he said.
"My opposition to Ronnie White was well founded. I simply came to the overwhelming conclusion that Judge White should not be given lifetime tenure as a federal judge."
On abortion, Ashcroft said the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was the law of the land, and he would uphold it, based in large part on the many court decisions since that have bolstered the law.
"I believe Roe v. Wade as an original matter was wrongly decided," he said. "I am personally opposed to abortion, but the role of attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it. ... The Supreme Court's decisions on this have been multiple, they have been recent, and they have been emphatic."
Groups aligned for and against
Ashcroft was verbally bombarded Tuesday morning by representatives of a coalition of women's groups, who described a potential Ashcroft tenure at the Department of Justice as "dangerous" for women's and minority rights and socially "regressive," while supporters rallied to back the designee.
"John Ashcroft ... stands for some of the most regressive policies on the ultraconservative agenda. He would ban contraceptive pills, deny contraceptive action to a woman who had been raped and would not allow an abortion in a case of incest," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.
Women's problems with Ashcroft don't end there, Ireland said.
"While women need the right to birth control and abortion, we also need to be able to have and raise children, and that means equal opportunity, good jobs and equal pay." Ashcroft, she said, mounted vigorous efforts as governor of Missouri and as state attorney general to block a number of feminist equal rights efforts.
But at a rally Tuesday morning, Ashcroft's supporters said he was well-qualified for the post.
"There is a large array of ultra-left-wing organizations out there opposing John Ashcroft," said John Levin of the Landmark Legal Foundation. "Some 18 of these groups have received $150 million of taxpayer funds. The American people are subsidizing the bill for this cabal of liberal character assassins.
"They question John Ashcroft's willingness to enforce the law because he is a religious man," Levin said.
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