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Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft absorbed early shots to his conservative ideology in the opening of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. It didn’t take long for partisans to stake out their ground. One of the panel’s leading liberals, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., claimed his former Senate colleague’s “heart is not in the laws” that he would have to enforce. Kennedy cited Ashcroft’s personal views against abortion, affirmative action, and gun control as “very troubling” areas of the nominee’s record. Later, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who introduced Ashcroft to the committee, called Kennedy’s characterization “flat, simply wrong.” Ashcroft, who lost his Senate seat in a bizarre election against the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, also defended himself in an opening statement, saying he would enforce all the laws, even ones he disagreed with. “I understand that being attorney general means enforcing the laws as written,” he said. Ashcroft said he took pride in his record as Missouri’s attorney general (1976-85) and governor (1985-93). Ashcroft’s hearings were gaveled to order by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is briefly chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee preceding Saturday’s inauguration of President George W. Bush. Right now, outgoing Vice President Al Gore technically provides the tie-breaking vote in a Senate deadlocked 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. The Ashcroft hearings are expected to last through the end of this week, and resume next week. A vote won’t be called until Bush takes office — and his vice president, Dick Cheney, becomes the 51st vote. At that point, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will resume as chairman of Senate Judiciary. The committee on Tuesday released a list of witnesses expected to testify. Among them are two members of Missouri’s state court bench: Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White and Missouri Circuit Court Judge David Mason. White, whose nomination to a federal judgeship Ashcroft successfully derailed in 1999, is being called to testify by the Democrats. White’s story has been one of the lightning rods for opponents of Ashcroft’s nomination from almost the moment he was tapped by Bush last month. President Bill Clinton nominated White for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis. White, the state’s first African-American high court justice, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but defeated 54-45 on the Senate floor. Ashcroft, seizing on a vote that White had cast to reverse a death sentence, said at the time that White would “push law in a pro-criminal direction, consistent with his own personal political agenda, rather than defer to the legislative will of the people.” White, the first witness listed to testify after the committee finishes questioning Ashcroft, is likely to testify late today or early Thursday, followed sometime later by Judge Mason and others. Mason is one of several African-Americans that then-Gov. Ashcroft appointed to the state bench. It’s not clear what Mason will testify to; attempts to reach him Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful. For sitting judges, participation in such high-profile and politicized hearings can be a delicate matter, says Stephen Gillers, who teaches legal ethics at New York University School of Law. Taking a direct position for or against Ashcroft, Gillers suggests, “would be improper for a sitting judge.” Instead, Gillers says, it is appropriate for White to answer factual questions about Ashcroft’s characterization of his judicial record. In addition to White and Mason, 13 other witnesses are expected to go before the Judiciary Committee. Democrats are calling representatives from a variety of liberal groups that oppose Ashcroft’s views on gun control, church-state separation, abortion rights, and civil rights. They include: Michael Barnes, president of Handgun Control Inc.; James Dunn, a Wake Forest divinity professor who advocates strict church-state separation; and Pastor B.T. Rice, a St. Louis clergyman who claims that Ashcroft’s opposition of White was steeped in racism. Ashcroft’s critics have begun retreating from using the race card against the nominee. “This is not about whether Senator Ashcroft is racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon or anti-anything else,” Leahy said Tuesday. Leahy added that he wanted to find out whether Ashcroft would urge the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. On Tuesday, Ashcroft told the committee that he, like other Republican attorneys general, believe Roe v. Wade, as an original matter, was “wrongly decided.” “I am personally opposed to abortion. But, as I have explained this afternoon, I well understand that the role of the attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it.” Democrats have also lined up pro-choice advocates opposed to Ashcroft, including Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League; and Frank Susman, a St. Louis litigator who unsuccessfully challenged a Missouri law restricting abortions in the 1989 case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. Republicans have called Kay James of the conservative Heritage Foundation; Edward “Chip” Robertson, a former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice; and Robert Woodson, who founded the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a grass-roots organization that fights poverty and supports faith-based substance abuse programs.

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