Second chances are rare in the U.S. Senate’s judicial-confirmation process. On Wednesday, Ronnie White, the first African-American judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, beat the odds by winning confirmation to a federal district court seat the Senate denied him 15 years ago.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated White, then a state Supreme Court justice, to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The Senate rejected the nomination two years later after an aggressive attack led by then Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.
Ashcroft accused White of being pro-criminal, particularly in his death penalty rulings. He bolstered the attack with opposition from local police groups. White’s supporters countered that the opposition was based on race. Ashcroft subsequently convinced Republican senators to vote as a block, which doomed White’s nomination.
When Ashcroft was later nominated as U.S. attorney general, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said during the confirmation hearings that Ashcroft’s role in defeating White’s nomination was “the ugliest thing that has happened to any nominee in all my years in the U.S. Senate.”
After the Senate rejected his nomination, White, a former state representative and public defender, remained on the Missouri Supreme Court and served as chief justice until 2007. He left that year to join the St. Louis firm Holloran White Schwartz & Gaertner, where he handled personal injury and business litigation.
Last November, President Barack Obama nominated him to Missouri’s Eastern District bench. The Senate voted, 53-44, to confirm him.
During the floor consideration, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who opposed White in 1999, said he continued to oppose him. “Judicial decision-making requires a disinterested and objective approach that never takes into account the judge’s life experiences, or policy preferences,” Grassley said. “And, from the careful look that I’ve taken at Justice White’s 13-year track record as a judge, I just have too many questions about his ability to keep his personal considerations separate from his judicial opinions.”
But a White supporter, Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said in a statement that by renominating White, Obama “gave the Senate a chance to right an historic wrong. This vote also illustrates the importance of last year’s changes to Senate rules. Given the Republican track record on judicial nominations in general—and this one in particular—it’s not clear that Judge White would have been confirmed if not for reforms allowing a simple majority vote to end a filibuster.”
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