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Judge Ronnie White has finally gotten a full-fledged hearing on Capitol Hill. White appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday in dramatic testimony in the third day of hearings over Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft. The committee is deliberating whether Ashcroft is fit to lead the Department of Justice. But White — nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1997 for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis — was there to set the facts straight about his own record as a member of the Missouri Supreme Court. White, who has served on the Missouri court since 1995, defended his decisions in death penalty and drug cases: matters that Ashcroft cited in successfully campaigning against White’s appointment to the federal bench in 1999. The state’s first African-American high court justice, White was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee after a brief hearing, but defeated in a 54-45 party-line vote on the Senate floor. Ashcroft, relying on a vote 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 told the committee Thursday: “I deeply resent those baseless accusations.” Democrats and other foes of Ashcroft’s nomination to attorney general have seized on his handling of White, saying the senator treated him unfairly by taking his record out of context and sandbagging him with criticism late in the process. White appeared Thursday at the invitation of Democrats trying to derail Ashcroft’s nomination. He pointed out that he had voted with the majority of the Missouri high court in 53 of 59 death penalty cases. White refrained from urging the senators to vote against Ashcroft, but he questioned whether the former senator’s comments were “consistent with fair play and justice.” While Democrats and Republicans each angled their questions to suit their partisan purposes, White’s jurisprudence got a more substantive discussion than he received as a nominee. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, noted that the committee rarely spends much time reviewing nominations for lower courts. “The Senate owes you an apology,” Specter said, adding that controversial nominations deserve “special attention.” Specter, who voted against White in 1999, did not say whether he regretted that decision, but called Ashcroft’s characterization of White “intemperate.” Specter suggested that he believes that Ashcroft had not done “anything but exercise his own judgment.” On Wednesday, Ashcroft had used a similar argument to defend his treatment of White. “I believe I acted properly,” he said. Ashcroft maintained that White was disqualified from the federal bench because he dissented from a 1998 state Supreme Court opinion affirming a death sentence. As a sole dissenter, White had argued that the defendant, who was convicted of killing three sheriff’s deputies and the wife of a sheriff, did not get constitutionally adequate representation from his defense lawyers. White would have ordered a retrial. White, Ashcroft said on Wednesday, “is giving clearly guilty murderers a new trial.” Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, was incredulous, noting that defense lawyers made mistakes at trial that discredited the theory that the defendant suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I cannot believe you would have hired the defendant’s counsel,” he told Ashcroft. The nominee responded that an alleged mistake at trial that doesn’t prejudice the verdict isn’t enough to force a retrial. Ruling otherwise, Ashcroft argued, would allow counsel to lie at trial with impunity: “If you succeed, you win; and if you fail, you lose but get a new trial,” he told the committee. Since President-elect George W. Bush tapped Ashcroft on Dec. 22, foes of the nomination have attacked Ashcroft’s positions on affirmative action, gun control, abortion, and other issues as inconsistent with laws he will have to enforce as attorney general. Ashcroft has responded that he will enforce all the laws — even ones he does not agree with — citing his record as Missouri governor and attorney general as examples when he has enforced affirmative action and pro-choice laws or precedents. That record appeared to have won over at least one Democratic vote, that of Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. A former governor himself, Miller released a statement announcing he was supporting Ashcroft because he did not believe “the progressive state of Missouri would elect an ‘extremist’ five different times or that the National Governors’ Association would choose one as its chairman.” Republicans say all 50 GOP senators support Ashcroft, meaning he appears to have the necessary votes to be confirmed.

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