LAST YEAR Missouri Republican Sen. Christopher Bond introduced judicial nominee Ronnie White at his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that it was a pleasure "to urge that this committee act favorably upon [his nomination] and send [it] to the floor for confirmation." Sen. Bond was not the only Republican to support Judge White, who is the first African American to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court and who was nominated in June 1997 by President Clinton to a federal district court vacancy in Missouri. When the committee reported the nomination to the floor this summer, in fact, three Republicans -- Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Strom Thurmond -- voted for him. Yet when Judge White finally received a vote from the full Senate on Tuesday, these four senators and all the other Senate Republicans voted against him and killed his nomination.
The ostensible reason for the opposition to Judge White was that he was, as Sen. John Ashcroft put it, a judge "with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity" that had caused him to dissent in a group of death penalty cases. That Judge White has voted dozens of times, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, to affirm death sentences didn't matter. Nor did it matter that in the majority of the cases in which he voted to overturn a death sentence, he voted with a majority of his court. The Senate did not consider whether his objections in those few death penalty cases in which he dissented were actually valid. Apparently the Republican caucus has decided that ever dissenting in a death penalty case makes one ineligible to serve on the federal bench.
Even if this position were reasonable, Judge White's record has been known for the entire period his nomination has been pending. Nobody who voted for him in committee as recently as July can plausibly claim that the ground had shifted between then and now. The willingness of some Republicans to change positions on this plainly qualified nominee -- not to mention the willingness of the Republican leadership to make such a vote a subject for party unity -- suggests there is no longer even a component of principle in the Senate's judicial nominations process.
This vote was politics of the rawest sort. It was the politics of an upcoming Missouri Senate race, in which Sen. Ashcroft apparently intends to use the death penalty as a campaign issue. And it was the politics of the Senate, where Majority Leader Trent Lott was content to send a message about who ultimately controls the nominations spigot. Ronnie White was just a victim of this reckless type of government.