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05 Jan 2001 00:00
United States President-elect George W Bush put the finishing touches to his Cabinet this week, producing an administration team blending old-school pragmatic conservativism with rightwing radicalism on key domestic issues, tempered by the striking ethnic diversity of the line-up. That diverse image was reinforced when Bush announced his last three Cabinet nominees.
As transport secretary he proposed Norman Mineta, a Japanese-American and a Democrat.
The 14 Cabinet nominees include four women and two blacks, a degree of variety that compares well with the first Clinton administration eight years ago. But Bush’s choice for the post of attorney general—the anti-abortion, pro-execution John Ashcroft—has came under fierce attack from black Americans and liberals.
Ashcroft is a rightwinger from Missouri who so enraged opponents in his home state that they came out in droves in November to elect a dead man (Democrat Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash during the campaign), in his place. The anti-Ashcroft effort backfired, however, as the defeat made him available for the Department of Justice, viewed by rightwing activists as the key prize in the Cabinet.
Most observers believe that Ashcroft will survive his confirmation hearing in an evenly divided Senate, but it will not be without a fight. “He is far and away the most troubling choice,” a New York Democrat said. “The question is: will Ashcroft enforce the law of the land on things that he is morally opposed to?”
Abortion rights campaigners have expressed doubts that Ashcroft would pursue prosecutions against anti-abortion militants trying to prevent women attending family planning clinics. They also fear he might add to the pressure on the Supreme Court to overturn the landmark Roe vs Wade verdict, guaranteeing the right to an abortion.
As a senator, Ashcroft pushed for an amendment to the Constitution that went further than the demands of many pro-life activists, banning abortions even in cases of incest or rape. But the most fervent opposition to Ashcroft’s nomination will come from black American groups who accuse him of playing the race card in Missouri.
They will make the case of Judge Ronnie White the central exhibit in the confirmation process. Judge White was the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court, and was widely expected to rise to a place on a federal district court in 1999, until Ashcroft launched a campaign against him, denouncing him as pro-criminal.
Even by Missouri’s standards, Judge White was fairly hawkish on crime, voting to uphold the death penalty in 41 out of 52 appeals. In 10 other cases he voted with the majority of the court to reverse a sentence because of legal errors in the original trial.
Ashcroft focused on the one capital case in which Judge White had been the lone dissenter. The case involved a black Vietnam veteran, Brian Kinder, who was convicted of killing three police officers and a sheriff’s wife in what he said was a post-traumatic flashback. Kinder had demanded the trial judge, Earl Blackwell, withdraw himself because he was up for re-election and had made some racially charged remarks to explain his defection from the Democratic to the Republican Party.
Despite the fact that Judge White had won the endorsement of the Missouri police association, Ashcroft predicted that if he was allowed to sit on a federal court, the judge would “use his lifetime appointment to push law in a pro-criminal direction”. The New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has argued that Ashcroft characterisations of Judge White’s career were “vicious falsehoods”, and he was therefore unfit to hold the office of attorney general.
The Bush transition has taken the precaution of putting together a dossier on the White case, defending Ashcroft’s actions. Ashcroft has refused to comment on the issue, but he published a fierce defence of his record on race issues last year, arguing he had supported numerous black causes. His critics however, point to the fact that Ashcroft is a fervent opponent of affirmative action and has accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, a Protestant fundamentalist college in South Carolina that banned interracial dating until recently.
In a 1998 interview he also hailed a rightwing magazine, Southern Partisan, for its “heritage of defending Southern patriots” and for “helping set the record straight” on the Civil War. The nomination of judges often provides the most contested battlefields in the formative months of a presidency. Congress has blocked most of Bill Clinton’s judicial nominations since Republicans seized control of the legislature in 1994.
Earlier, Democrats united to block one of Ronald Reagan’s nominees to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork, and later tried unsuccessfully to stop George Bush Snr’s equally conservative nominee, Clarence Thomas. It looks as if they may fail again this time around. Ashcroft’s southern charm has won some friends across the aisle, who have already said they would back him.
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