Statement of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee



Representative Sheila Jackson Lee

before the

Senate Judiciary Committee

regarding the nomination of John Ashcroft

January 17, 2001

I want to thank Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch for allowing me this unique opportunity to offer my testimony on the nomination of Mr. John Ashcroft for attorney general of the United States. As Martin Luther King once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That is why I am here today to testify not only as a member of Congress, but as a citizen of our diverse and vulnerable nation.

Based on Mr. John Ashcroft’s voting record of aggressive opposition to women’s rights, civil rights, and the unfortunate handling of the nomination of Judge Ronnie White, the Senate Judiciary Committee and its colleagues should vote down his nomination for the sake of unifying America. The attorney general for the United States should support laws that protect all of America’s people. It is unfortunate that ratings by the Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, and the American Conservative Union show that throughout his six years in the United States Senate, John Ashcroft has been a consistent and reliable vote in opposing the certified law of the land.

We have an obligation to scrutinize Mr. Ashcroft’s record. The Senate responsibility is especially heavy to the position of attorney general, since that person is the custodian of laws, constitutional rights and oversight responsibilities that protect the liberties of Americans and ensure the fair administration of justice. I am not questioning Mr. Ashcroft’s personal probity; I am vigorously questioning his suitability for the job for which he has been selected.

Mr. Ashcroft’s record on matters of race has been simply disappointing. Columnist Jack White of Time magazine summed up Ashcroft’s record on civil rights and race issues as horrendous, and described his stances on civil rights issues in a very negative manner. According to the Washington Times, Ashcroft received a grade of ‘F’ on each of the last three NAACP report cards because of his anti-progressive voting record, having voted to approve only three of 15 legislative issues supported by the NAACP and other civil rights groups. [White column, Time, 1/8/01; Washington Times,1/2/01] This explains why such a broad number of groups are so strongly united against his confirmation as the next attorney general of the United States.

Mr. Ashcroft opposed the approval of Judge Ronnie White to the Federal Bench. In 1997, President Clinton nominated Judge White of the Missouri Supreme Court to be a United States District Court Judge. At the hearings on his nomination in May 1998, Judge White was introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Republican Senator Christopher Bond, who told the committee that Judge White “has the necessary qualifications and character traits which are required for this most important job.” See Confirmation Hearings on Federal Appointments: Hearings Before the Senn.Comm.On the Judicary, 15th Cong., 2d Sess. 7-8 (1998).

In 1962, Dr. King once said that “[it] may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” But have we learned from his admonition? According to the London Guardian and many Americans across the nation, John Ashcroft led a campaign to defeat the nomination of Missouri’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Judge Ronnie White, to the federal bench. Mr. Ashcroft seriously distorted White’s record, portraying it as pro criminal, and anti-death penalty, and even suggested, according to the London Guardian, that “the judge had shown a tremendous bent toward criminal activity.” Critics called the charges “outright slander” and “flimsy,” and point out that Judge White “had voted to uphold the death sentence in 41of the 59 cases that came before him, roughly the same proportion as Ashcroft’s court appointees when he was Governor.” [London Guardian, 1/3/01; New York Newsday, 1/3/01; Washington Post, 1/1/01; Kansas City Star, 1/3/01; Boston Globe, 1/3/01; Shelly column, Kansas City Star, 12/28/00; White column, Time,1/8/01]

In fact, of these 59 death penalty cases, Judge White was the sole dissenter in only three of them. As a matter of fact, three of the other Missouri Supreme Court judges, all of whom were appointed by Mr. Ashcroft as Governor, voted to reverse death penalty case sentences in greater percentage of cases than did Judge White. Ashcroft also failed to consider or mention that in at least fifteen death penalty cases Missouri Supreme Court Justice, Ronnie White, wrote the majority opinion for the court to uphold the death sentence. Further, none of the opinions, which date from 1996-2000, contain any significant legal issues that would warrant concerns about his judicial philosophy. This is a judicial nominee for which Mr. Ashcroft had no substantial reason to oppose – and it is time that America knows the facts.

We already know that Mr. Ashcroft’s own staff alerted opposition groups of White’s nomination. He cannot deny these facts now. During Ronnie White’s confirmation hearings, Ashcroft claimed that Missouri’s law enforcement community had ‘raised red flags’ about his nomination. However, according to the Washington Post, the state’s law enforcement groups had widely divergent opinions of White. What’s more, Ashcroft’s aides raised those ‘redflags’ themselves, alerting the groups about White’s nomination. [Washington Post, 1/1/01] Factually, the record will show that Judge White did have support from law enforcement.

More importantly, each Senator knows that when Judge White’s nomination was brought to the Senate floor in October 1999, Senator Ashcroft spearheaded a successful party-line fight to defeat White’s confirmation, the first time in twelve years (since the vote on Robert Bork) that the full Senate had voted to reject a nominee to the federal bench. In contrast to that effort, as former Congressman William L. Clay introduced Judge Ronnie White before the Senate Judiciary Committee he said the following: “I might cite one incident that attests to the kind of relationship that Judge White has with many, and that is with a member of this committee – Senator Ashcroft. When I recommended Judge White to the President for nomination and the President nominated him, one of the first people that I conferred with was Senator Ashcroft. At a later date, he told me that he had appointed six of the seven members to the Missouri Supreme Court. Ronnie White was the only one he had not appointed. He said he had canvassed the other six, the ones that he appointed, and they all spoke very highly of Ronnie White and suggested that he would make an outstanding Federal Judge. So I think that this is the kind of person we need on the Federal bench.” Confirmation Hearings on Federal Appointments: Hearings before the Sen. Comm. On the Judiciary, 105th Cong., 2d Sess. 7-8 (1998).

Mr. Ashcroft called Confederate Soldiers “Patriots.” According to Time columnist Jack White, Ashcroft has also lauded the neo-segregationist magazine Southern Partisan in an interview. Ashcroft further claimed in an interview that “We’ve have all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.” Southern Partisan magazine is a 20-year-old publication that has featured articles defending Confederate figures and the Confederacy, and once sold T-shirts, according to the Associated Press, “commemorating Abraham Lincoln with the phrase his assassin uttered, ‘Thus always to tyrants.’” According to an analysis by the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, Southern Partisan supported South African apartheid, prints racist theories presented in ‘The Bell Curve’ and gives positive coverage to former KKK leader David Duke. [White column, Time, 1/8/01; Los Angeles Times, 1/01/01; London Guardian, 1/3/01; Crouch column, New York Daily News, 1/8/01; USA Today, 12/28/00; Associated Press,12/28/00; Washington Post, 2/18/00]

I am further saddened to learn that Mr. Ashcroft accepted an Honorary Degree from Bob Jones University. In 1999, Ashcroft accepted an honorary degree Bob Jones University, which critics have called racist and anti-catholic. Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1970 for refusing to admit African-Americans. The school then changed its policy but still prohibited any interracial dating or marriage. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court supported an IRS decision to remove tax-exempt status from the school for its dating policy, which included rules such as “students who date outside their own race will be expelled.” In 1998, James Landrith, who is white, tried to apply to the school even though he is married to an African American woman. According to NPR, Landrith received this response to his application: “I noticed on your application that you are interracially married. Bob Jones University does not endorse this. It would be no problem for you to be a student here as long as your wife was not or vice versa.” [Teepen column, Dayton Daily News, 1/2/01; The Tax Lawyer, Winter 1984; World News Digest,5/27/83; NPR, 4/15/99]

Mr. Ashcroft opposed gathering statistics for racial profiling studies. After learning of the importance of law enforcement efforts to stem these unlawful activities in a number of states, Mr. Ashcroft’s views appear not only out of touch with mainstream America but with existing consent decrees by law enforcement to rid the nation of this practice. This troubles me immensely. In 1999, Ashcroft opposed legislation for gathering racial statistics on traffic violations after chairing the Subcommittee hearing on it, “favoring ignorance over information,” according to at least one newspaper. [Seattle Times, 1/2/01;editorial, USA Today, 1/9/01] How can Mr. Ashcroft be attorney general if he fundamentally disagrees with this fundamental human rights issue?

Further, Mr. Ashcroft refused to merely sign a report on improving lives of minorities. This is excessive. Mr. Ashcroft was one of two members of a commission on America’s minorities who refused to sign a final report which said that the nation was slipping in efforts to achieve equality for blacks, Hispanics and Indians. The report, “One-Third of a Nation” by the Commission on Minority Participation, proposed a 20-year effort to close the gap between the races in income, education and other areas. Ashcroft indicated he found the report, which said that America had not only lost the momentum of earlier minority progress but suffered reversals in the drive for full equality. Ashcroft’s office issued a statement saying that, “He (Ashcroft) could not fully subscribe to the commission’s final report because of its inordinate emphasis on federal government programs as compared to the crucial initiatives of individuals, states and localities.” [Associated Press, 5/24/88; UPI, 5/24/88; London Guardian, 1/3/01; Washington Post, 1/1/01] That is sad and further evidence of his insensitivity for basic matters concerning equal protection and justice for all.

The President-Elect’s selection for Attorney General has certainly been no friend of reproductive rights for women in America. Ashcroft would not be a guardian of women’s right to reproductive choice as provided by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. On the contrary, Mr. Ashcroft supports a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion even in cases of incest and rape and that would criminalize several commonly used forms of contraception. As Missouri attorney general and governor, and more recently in the Senate, he repeatedly used his office as a United States Senator to push through severe new restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom as part of an effort to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is fair to say that many women in America have a right to be concerned because as attorney general, Ashcroft could use the power the Federal government behind new strategies to defeat the right to an abortion in the Supreme Court. It is also reasonable to express doubts about whether he would fully enforce laws that insure access to abortion clinics by limiting violent or obstructive demonstrations by abortion opponents.

As the series of other questionable acts that can be found in Mr. Ashcroft’s record as a public servant, I find such action by Mr. Ashcroft to be inconsistent with the kind of vision and tolerance that the next top law enforcement officer will need to exhibit. Mr. Ashcroft’s record on desegration in the State of Missouri is one of those examples that makes me truly sad as an African American and I have an obligation to emphasize this very grave matter.

John Ashcroft, as Attorney General and as Governor of the State if Missouri consistently opposed efforts to desegregate schools in Missouri, which for more than 150 years, had legally sanctioned separate and inferior education for blacks.

Missouri has a long and marked history of systematically discriminating against African Americans in the provision of public education. During forty-five years of slavery, the State forbid the education of blacks. After the Civil War, Missouri was the most northern state to have a constitutional mandate requiring separate schools for blacks and whites. This Constitutional provision remained in place until 1976. For much of its history, Missouri provided vastly inferior services to black students.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Missouri Attorney General’s office, rather than ordering the dismantling of segregation, simply issued an opinion stating that local districts “may permit” white and colored children to attend the same schools, and could decide for themselves whether they must integrate.” Local schools districts in St. Louis and Kansas City perpetuated segregation by manipulating attendance boundaries, drawing discriminatory busing plans and building new schools in places to keep races apart.

The St. Louis case, which is under such debate in these proceedings today, was filed in 1972. St. Louis had adhered to an explicit system of racial segregation throughout the 1960s. White students were assigned to schools in their neighborhood; black students attended black schools in the core of the city. Black students who resided outside the city were bused into the black schools in the city. The city had launched no effort to integrate; it simply adopted neighborhood school assignment plans that maintained racial segregation.

In 1972, Minnie Liddell and a group of parents filed a class action against the St. Louis City Board of Education. Contrary to Senator Ashcroft’s testimony, the State was made a party to this action and the Eighth Circuit ultimately found that the State and the City School Board, were responsible for maintaining school segregation for many years following Brown, and that they acted in violation of the constitutional rights of the plaintiff school children. With this ruling, the Eighth ordered that a desegregation plan be devised.

In 1980, the parent and student plaintiffs, along with the City Board, amended complaints seeking a metropolitan school desegregation remedy. Subsequently, the district court announced a voluntary interdistrict desegregation plan, and added the 22 St. Louis County school districts as defendants.

Senator Ashcroft then, the Attorney General, challenged the desegregation plan. He argued that there was no basis for holding the State liable and that the State had taken the “necessary and appropriate steps to remove the legal underpinnings of segregated schooling as well as affirmatively prohibiting such discrimination.” The courts rejected his attempts; even the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiori.

In 1983, the city school Board and the 22 suburban districts all agreed to a “unique and compressive” settlement, implementing a voluntary five-year school desegregation plan for both the city and the county. Importantly, the plan was voluntary – it relied on voluntary transfers by students rather than so-called “forced busing.” The district court approved this plan.

Attorney General Ashcroft, representing the State, was the only one that did not join the settlement. He opposed all aspects of the settlement. In fact, he sought to have it overturned by the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit upheld most of the provisions of the plan, and emphasized that three times over the prior three years, specifically held that the State was the primary constitutional violator. Not satisfied, Ashcroft then sought review in the Supreme Court, which denied his requests. Even after his unsuccessful appeals, Senator Ashcroft continued to obstruct the operation of the settlement, leading the district court to conclude that “if it were not for the State of Missouri and its feckless appeals, perhaps none of use would be here at this time.”

When he became Governor, Ashcroft continued to obstruct the desegregation plans of the State’s educational institution’s well into the 1990s. Judge Steve Limbaugh, who was appointed by President Reagan, actually stated that the State was ignoring the real objectives of this case – a better education for city students in public schools.

We need a nominee that enforces the civil rights laws of the Nation, that brings strength and confidence to the top law enforcement post of our great country, and to affirm equal protection and fundamental fairness in the United States of America. We owe at least that much to the working people of America and all those who believe the United States remains an example of basic fairness and justice for all.

I strongly believe that the philosophy and beliefs of Senator John Ashcroft are archaic and obsolete. This country has come so far in improving civil rights and fundamental fairness. The confirmation of John Ashcroft will set us years back after all the improvements that have been made. This would be a travesty.

Thank you.

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