Deepening Rift Over Judge Vote
By Ben White
Controversy over the Republican-controlled Senate's rejection of an African American candidate for a seat on the federal bench deepened yesterday, as new statistics were released indicating that during the last Congress minority judicial candidates were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts not to be confirmed.
Numbers compiled by the bipartisan Constitution Project, which is affiliated with Georgetown University, show that during the 1997-98 congressional term there were 92 white nominees and 31 minority nominees for vacancies in the federal courts. Of the nominations of whites, 14 percent failed, either because of lack of action by the Senate or because the candidates withdrew. Of the minority nominations, 35 percent failed.
Democrats and minority groups seized on these and other statistics yesterday to attack Republicans in the Senate for breaking with tradition in voting strictly along party lines Tuesday to reject Missouri state Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, who is black, for a seat on the federal district court in Missouri.
The vote represented the first time in 12 years that the full Senate has rejected a judicial nominee.
"The fact that Ronnie White is an African American judge and for this to happen under such frivolous excuses borders on racism and is certainly partisan politics," said Rev. B.T. Rice, president of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, which represents 113 churches in the St. Louis area.
Republicans angrily dismissed the argument that White's race had anything to do with the vote to reject him, pointing out, as they had on Tuesday, that most in the GOP caucus were unaware that White was black when they voted against him.
"Ronnie White was opposed at the grass-roots level by law enforcement officers all over Missouri," said Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who led the charge against the nomination, urging fellow Republicans to vote against White during a caucus luncheon Tuesday.
"They asked me to consider this nomination based on his weak record on the death penalty and drug enforcement and, frankly, I don't think I've ever seen a candidate that had the kind of opposition from law enforcement that Judge White had."
Ashcroft said he has supported 90 percent of President Clinton's judicial nominees, whether white or minority, and said he does not believe race plays any role in how the Senate deals with vacancies on the bench. "I do believe that all judges are viewed on their merits," he said.
In Missouri, however, Ashcroft's likely Senate opponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), argued that White's record in death penalty cases does not differ markedly from nominees that Ashcroft himself placed on the bench during his tenure as governor.
"Judge White is a highly qualified lawyer and judge and the [death penalty] figures were manipulated by Senator Ashcroft to undermine him," Carnahan said. "Ashcroft's own appointees to the state Supreme Court voted more times to reverse death penalty cases. His figures just do not hold water."
Controversy over White's nomination continued to roil political waters on Capitol Hill and at the White House yesterday, with Clinton and GOP senators trading partisan volleys.
Clinton addressed the issue in a Rose Garden news conference, angrily condemning Republicans in even sharper terms than he had on Tuesday.
"Yesterday's defeat of Ronnie White's nomination for the federal district court judgeship in Missouri was a disgraceful act of partisan politics," Clinton said. "The Republican-controlled Senate is adding credence to the perception that they treat minority and women judicial nominees unfairly and unequally."
Republicans in the Senate responded quickly, accusing the president of cynically injecting race into what they described as a clear-cut case of a nominee being rejected on the basis of his record.
"I think it is an absolute disgrace," said Missouri Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican who supported White when his nomination cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but voted against him Tuesday. The Democrats "are attempting to use race as a political weapon in the most unfortunate and potentially dangerous way."
Bond explained his own reversal yesterday, saying he supported White in committee out of courtesy to constituents in Missouri but, after reviewing his record, concluded he could not support his appointment to the bench. "His friends were friends of mine," Bond said. "And they asked me to get him through committee and I said I would be happy to do so because his friends gave him the highest recommendation."
But the Rev. Rice in St. Louis reserved his sharpest criticism for Bond, saying the senator assured him during his reelection campaign that he would support White.
"We met with Kit Bond when he was running for reelection and asked: 'Are you going to support Judge White?' and his response was: 'Absolutely I am.' For him to cave in as he did is really appalling. It's unbelievable that he would fling this in our face."
Staff writers Joan Biskupic, Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company