The full Senate yesterday voted to reject a judicial nominee for the first time in 12 years, prompting President Clinton to denounce the move as "a disgraceful act" tinged by racial considerations because the nominee was African American.
The GOP-controlled Senate voted 54 to 45, along strict party lines, to reject the nomination of Ronnie White, the first black judge on Missouri's state supreme court. Clinton had tapped White to be a federal district court judge, but Republicans said he was insufficiently supportive of the death penalty.
Rejection of judicial nominations by the full Senate is highly unusual, in part because endangered nominations are normally stopped in committee or stalled before a Senate vote. Some GOP senators had supported White when his nomination was approved by the Judiciary Committee, but they apparently had second thoughts after sharp criticism this week from Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.).
Partisan rancor over judges has been unusually high in recent months, with Republicans critical of Clinton appointments and Democrats furious over what they see as deliberate GOP foot-dragging on the president's judicial nominations.
White House aides said Clinton was incensed by yesterday's vote and deliberately chose extraordinarily sharp words to express his feelings.
"This vote was a disgraceful act of partisan politics by the Republican majority, and creates real doubt on the ability of the Senate to fairly perform its constitutional duty to advise and consent," Clinton said. The Senate process had "lost any pretense of fairness," he said, and "provides strong evidence for those who believe that the Senate treats minority and women judicial nominees unequally."
Republicans angrily denied that race played a role in the vote. "Many people on our side didn't know what color Mr. White was," said GOP Whip Don Nickles (Okla.). He said was "offended" by suggestions of racial considerations.
Yet the issue was raised by some of his Democratic colleagues despite the Senate's tradition of refraining from questioning a member's motives. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said he hoped the country "has not reverted to a time in its history where there was a color test on nominations."
White's rejection was the first such vote on the Senate floor since the 1987 defeat of conservative jurist Robert H. Bork, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan for a seat on the Supreme Court. It came on the same day that the Senate approved two other judicial nominations, including Ted Stewart, a friend of Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), as a U.S. district judge in Utah.
Democrats had permitted a vote on Stewart only after Republicans agreed last week to schedule votes on other nominations, including White's, which was thought to be relatively non-controversial. Indeed, the Judiciary Committee had overwhelmingly recommended his confirmation with the support of prominent conservatives such as Hatch.
But the tide began to turn after a Republican Party luncheon yesterday at which Ashcroft, facing reelection in Missouri next year, urged colleagues to defeat the nomination. In a floor debate that began Monday night, Ashcroft described White, 46, as "pro-criminal" and an "activist" jurist.
Ashcroft noted that numerous law enforcement groups in Missouri complained about White's record, including his dissent in death penalty cases.
Among those who changed course was Missouri's other senator, Christopher S. Bond (R), who earlier had recommended White to the Judiciary Committee by saying: "Judge White understands the role of the federal district judges is to interpret the law, not to make the law."
Clinton said that GOP lawmakers had "maligned and distorted" White's record, and that the judge had "affirmed the imposition of the death penalty in almost 70 percent of the cases that came before him."
But Republican Policy Committee Chairman Larry E. Craig (Idaho) said last-minute evidence by sheriffs and prosecutors was decisive in swaying GOP opinion.
Craig dismissed Democrats' suggestions that White was rejected because he is African American, saying he did not know White's race until Leahy brought it up. "Shame on Pat Leahy," he said.
Civil rights leaders, who coincidentally had held a news conference earlier yesterday to complain about slow Senate progress on minority judicial nominees, were surprised by the rejection of White and immediately expressed outrage.
"The Senate Republican leadership is clearly pursuing a scorched-earth policy on judicial nominations, and Ronnie White is the first casualty," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "The veneer of fairness that Republicans said they had is now clearly destroyed -- for all candidates, but particularly for African Americans and Hispanics."
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.