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  Ashcroft Pledges To Enforce Laws

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2001; 6:49 a.m. EST

WASHINGTON –– Skeptical of John Ashcroft's promise to ignore personal beliefs in enforcing the law, Democrats are making the former senator's rejection of Clinton administration nominees over ideology an issue in his fight to become attorney general.

"When you have been such a zealous and impassioned advocate for so long, how do you just turn it off?" asked Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., referring specifically to Ashcroft's opposition to abortion.

Some Democrats initially had voiced support for President-elect Bush's choice of Ashcroft to head the Justice Department, Schumer said as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened Ashcroft's confirmation hearing Tuesday.

"But now that your record has been more closely reviewed, the burden of proof has shifted to you," he told the conservative Republican nominee.

Another Democrat, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, said it is impossible for any attorney general to administer the law "like a robot, as if the law is not subject to feelings or strong convictions."

"It is up to you to explain to us why your convictions will not permeate, dominate or even overwhelm the Department of Justice," Kohl added.

Ashcroft assured his former colleagues he could do so, explaining how, as Missouri's attorney general, he insisted on protecting the privacy of people who had abortions and was against distributing religious publications in public schools.

"My primary personal belief is that the law is supreme, that I don't place myself above the law, that I shouldn't place myself above the law," he said. "So it would violate my beliefs to do it."

If his religious faith ever were to come in conflict with his enforcement of the law, "then I would have to resign," he said.

Ashcroft's personal convictions as a deeply religious, conservative Republican have triggered an outcry of opposition from civil rights and women's groups not witnessed since Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court a decade ago. Thomas and Ashcroft shared an office in the 1970s when they were young lawyers for the state of Missouri.

The hearing are expected to continue through Thursday and could be carried over into next week after Bush's inauguration Saturday. Senate GOP leader Trent Lott has predicted that all 50 Senate Republicans will vote for Ashcroft. So far, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California is the only Democrat who has said firmly that she will vote against him.

The toughest grilling of Ashcroft on Tuesday was over civil rights. The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, demanded to know whether "this Ashcroft standard" on a nominee's beliefs should apply to Ashcroft himself.

At issue was Ashcroft's opposition to Bill Lann Lee as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Clinton and Clinton's nomination of Surgeon General David Satcher.

While Ashcroft gave Lee high marks professionally, he said at the time that Lee's beliefs "limit his capacity to have the balanced view of making judgments that will be necessary for the person who runs the division."

In other words, Leahy said, Ashcroft had the same questions for Lee and Satcher that Democrats now have for Ashcroft: Will he be able to enforce laws with which he disagrees?

Ashcroft characterized his differences with Lee and Satcher as policy issues. He said he voted against Lee because of "serious concerns about his willingness to enforce" the Supreme Court's Adarand decision limiting preferences for minority companies in awarding government contracts.

Satcher, Ashcroft said, had backed controversial AIDS studies in Africa that withheld treatment from some pregnant women with HIV to test the effect of a new approach.

"You disagreed with his ethical choices and values?" Leahy asked.

"It was a shortfall in his adherence to the values of American medical authorities," Ashcroft replied.

Ashcroft said no part of the Justice Department he wants to head is more important than the civil rights division. He said he had appointed more blacks to Missouri courts than any previous governor and had voted as a senator for 26 of 27 black nominees to the federal bench.

Of the one black nominee whom he opposed – Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, who is set to testify Thursday – Ashcroft said, "I simply came to the overwhelming conclusion that Judge White should not be given lifetime tenure as a U.S. District Court judge."

Ashcroft's opposition as Missouri governor and attorney general to a voluntary busing plan in response to a school desegregation suit in St. Louis was questioned by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Ashcroft explained his objection was to the state paying for court-ordered school improvements when the state had not been found to have violated the law.

"The thing was, the state was going to have to pay for everything the people volunteered to do," Ashcroft replied.

Regardless of the cost, Kennedy shot back, "where in your priorities were the rights of those black students?"

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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