Ronnie White got the phone call 15 years later than expected. It came from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), thanking him for his patience.
“Justice delayed is not justice denied,” Durbin said Wednesday, recalling his conversation with White.
Hours later, on a mostly party-line vote, the Senate confirmed White to be a U.S. District Court judge in Missouri. It was a marked reversal from the first time he was up for a lifetime appointment to the federal courts.
In 1999, the GOP-controlled Senate denied White — the first black justice on the Missouri state Supreme Court — a seat on the federal bench. That stunning rejection became an escalating flash point in the Washington confirmation wars that have long pitted Democrats and Republicans against each other.
The political echoes rang on for years, including in an epic 2000 Senate race and in a confirmation battle for U.S. attorney general in 2001.
Wednesday’s roll call vote on White’s nomination also continued a brutally partisan battle over President Obama’s executive and judicial nominees. White’s confirmation was possible only because Senate Democrats unilaterally changed filibuster rules last fall and eliminated the requirement for a super-majority to move presidential appointments.
Since then, the Senate has been locked in a procedural dirge that has left senators discouraged by the notion that the only votes they cast anymore are to confirm nominees such as White.
Durbin, who has seen confirmation fights up close as a Judiciary Committee member, hoped that White’s confirmation would be a calming moment.
“I’m looking for any sign of healing,” he said in an interview.
Republicans do not seem so inclined. “They started this stuff,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the chamber’s most senior Republican, said Wednesday. Hatch, who chaired the judiciary panel at the time of White’s rejection, traced the battles over presidential nominees back to Robert Bork’s rejected Supreme Court nomination in 1987 at the hands of a Democratic-controlled Senate. “He was treated terribly,” Hatch said.
Those first fights in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on Democrats trying to knock out Republican-nominated justices for the Supreme Court, but by the late 1990s Republicans dedicated themselves to blocking President Bill Clinton’s nominees to the lower federal courts.
Democrats accused Hatch of slow-walking some nominees then, including an up-and-coming lawyer named Elena Kagan, whose 1999 nomination to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia was never considered by Hatch’s committee. She later became Obama’s solicitor general and then a Supreme Court justice in 2010.
White’s initial nomination was slow going but seemed to be non-controversial. Missouri’s two Senate Republicans — John D. Ashcroft and Christopher “Kit” Bond — gave initial approval. Bond even introduced him at his hearing, and the committee approved White on a bipartisan vote.
By October 1999, Ashcroft was locked in one of the most-storied Senate races ever, against Gov. Mel Carnahan (D). Carnahan had appointed White to the state Supreme Court, and for many black voters in St. Louis, his rise was a point of pride.
The White confirmation vote came on a Tuesday afternoon, and at a luncheon beforehand, Ashcroft pleaded with his Republican colleagues to reject the nomination. In a floor speech, he labeled White, 46 at the time, “pro-criminal” in his rulings.
Every Republican opposed the nomination, some acknowledging afterward that they knew little about White or his personal story. “Many people on our side didn’t know what color Mr. White was,” Don Nickles (Okla.), the Senate Republican whip at the time, told reporters.
According to a former senior GOP aide at the time, Ashcroft said a staff mistake had allowed the nomination to advance past the committee.
(His top legal adviser then, Paul D. Clement, went on to serve in the George W. Bush-era Justice Department and eventually became solicitor general.)
On Wednesday, Durbin said White’s nomination went beyond the other filibusters and defeated nominees, because he had received bipartisan support from the committee.
“One of the cruelest things ever done in the Senate,” Durbin said of the 1999 vote.
In the 2000 Senate race, Carnahan used the vote to rally opposition to Ashcroft, but in mid-October of that year, the Democrat died in a plane crash while traveling to a campaign event. Unable to get his name off the ballot under Missouri law, his widow, Jean, said she would accept an appointment to his seat if Ashcroft lost.
The late governor narrowly defeated Ashcroft, who rejected requests to challenge the results because of a large turnout in St. Louis.
Ashcroft was then nominated by Bush to be attorney general, and his confirmation hearing turned into a re-litigation of his role in defeating White’s nomination.
Before the Judiciary Committee in January 2001, White said Ashcroft misrepresented his record. “The question for the Senate is whether these misrepresentations are consistent with the fair play and justice you all would require of the U.S. attorney general,” he testified.
Ashcroft was confirmed and went on to oversee an aggressive legal framework for fighting terrorism. In 1999, Eric H. Holder Jr. was deputy attorney general, where part of his work was to handle judicial confirmations; by 2009 he was confirmed as attorney general.
By 2013, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who holds Ashcroft’s old seat, pushed White for another nomination. After his 2001 testimony, some Republicans apologized to him, and Hatch told reporters at the time that Republicans wished they could “revisit” the White vote.
Instead, the confirmation battles have steadily increased. In Bush’s first term, Democrats filibustered an unprecedented number of circuit court nominees, and Republicans threatened to change rules to eliminate filibusters. Once Barack Obama won the White House, the roles were reversed. Republicans started filibustering his nominations.
In November, Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold to end debate on presidential nominations. White’s nod came that same week, and eight months later there was still no thaw.
On Wednesday, just one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), supported White’s nomination. Hatch, again voting no, saw no sign of easing tensions on nomination fights for the rest of Obama’s term.
“I don’t expect anything but politics,” he said.