I was reading the paper and saw something so weird, it made me stop sipping my Starbucks.

A judicial nominee had just been rejected by the full Senate--for the first time since the defeat of Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.

What, I wondered, could cause the Senate to vote, 54 to 45 along strict party lines, to reject Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White for a federal judgeship?

Hint of corruption? Abysmal bench rulings?

Nope. Senate Republicans rejected White, the article explained, because they considered him "insufficiently supportive of the death penalty."

This is a man who affirmed the imposition of the death penalty in 71 percent of such cases that came before him. I stopped sipping because all my energy was required to compute just how many death warrants Judge White needed to sign to be sufficiently committed to the death penalty.

Eighty percent? 92.5? Every one?

I was so baffled, I backtracked through the article, this time paying more attention to a fact that Senate Republicans insisted they'd paid not a whit of attention to: that Judge White isn't, well, white.

The first federal judicial candidate rejected by the Senate in 12 years--a St. Louis native, 46, once considered nearly a shoo-in for the position--is black.

I could sip again. Rejecting Judge White because of his color would be utterly wrong, but hardly shocking. Minority candidates for federal judgeships are twice as likely not to be confirmed as their white counterparts. The bipartisan Constitution Project, a Georgetown University affiliate, reveals that of 92 white nominees for federal court vacancies during the 1997-98 congressional term, 14 percent failed, because of either the Senate's failure to act upon them or the candidates' withdrawal.

Of just 31 minority nominees during the same period, 35 percent failed.

Naturally, Senate Republicans insist race had nada to do with White's rejection because--get this--many who voted against him didn't know he's black. They're "offended" by charges of racial consideration by President Clinton, who nominated White to the federal bench, and others.

Oh, please. Anyone familiar with Congress knows that before any significant vote, legislators are given a heads-up as to the vote's potential consequences. How many senators can there be whose colleagues, staff or party leaders all failed to mention the possible repercussions of voting against Missouri's first and only African American Supreme Court judge?

The GOP wants us to think dozens of senators could be that clueless?

In fact, people can make racially tinged decisions without realizing it. Perhaps that's what happened at the University of Virginia, where it was recently revealed that about 63 percent of students expelled for honors violations are Asian, Latino or black at a university that's 68 percent white.

Not surprisingly, many don't buy the GOP line. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, says Senate Republicans "should be ashamed to admit voting on a position as important as a federal judgeship without knowing the nature of a candidate in all his dimensions--his voting records, preparation and identity."

Pretending White's rejection was about the death penalty is just as bogus. Considering recent, high-profile cases in which DNA testing exonerated death-row prisoners of their alleged crimes, what responsible judge--or sensible human soul--wouldn't be circumspect about applying the death penalty? Lovers of life should be committed to keeping innocent or wrongly convicted humans breathing, even those on death row.

Which brings us to the senator who turned the GOP tide against White: his fellow Missourian, John D. Ashcroft.

Ashcroft is so beloved by Christian conservatives that many were crushed when he opted not to run for president. He quashed White's confirmation chances by accusing him of having a "weak record" on the death penalty, and by citing some Missouri law enforcement groups' opposition to him. Ashcroft actually described White as "pro-criminal" in a decisive pre-vote speech Tuesday at a Republican Party luncheon.

What should Ashcroft's Christian constituency make of his bashing a jurist for voting in favor of killing convicted prisoners "only" 71 percent of the time? I called my own minister, who assured me that, no, I didn't miss the part in the Bible where Christ preached in favor of the death penalty--it doesn't exist.

I'll sip to this: Whether it was racism, partisan politics or Judge White's failure to dispatch every convicted criminal who came before him that caused his rejection, his senatorial executioners seem "insufficiently committed" to common sense.