Politics
3:29 pm
Tue December 3, 2013

Obama Offers Second Chance For Missouri Court Nominee

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 3:50 pm

President Obama has made it a priority to choose federal judges who are diverse in terms of race or gender. But for the most part, he's avoided controversy for those lifetime appointments.

That's why the nomination of a Missouri lawyer named Ronnie White has raised the eyebrows of experts who've been around Washington for a while. Old hands remember that White was rejected for a federal judgeship back in 1999 after a party line vote by Senate Republicans.

Now, in what experts say could be an unprecedented step, he's getting another chance.

White has already made history, in more ways than one. The Democratic lawyer served three terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. He became the first African-American to sit on the state Supreme Court, sworn in at a courthouse where slaves were once sold on the steps. And 14 years ago, White suffered a rare defeat on the U.S. Senate floor in his bid to become a federal judge.

"We rarely ever see floor votes rejecting a nomination," says Sarah Binder, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That's what is so unusual and why I think almost everybody who's followed judicial nominations remembers the Ronnie White case."

Binder and other experts who study nominations say they can't remember a time when a judge who's been voted down in the Senate has been renominated.

"There may be a case way back when in the early 19th century but for all intents and purposes this is unprecedented for a president to come back and renominate someone," Binder adds.

White is unusual for another reason: He took the opportunity to defend himself and his record by testifying against his chief antagonist, former Missouri GOP Sen. John Ashcroft, during Ashcroft's own confirmation hearing to become attorney general in the George W. Bush years. White told the Senate back in early 2001 that he once thought he had a clear path to become a judge.

"And then I learned that Sen. Ashcroft was opposing me," White recalled. "I was very surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me 'pro-criminal,' with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity. That he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order."

White told lawmakers that Ashcroft had distorted his record: "I deeply resent those baseless misreputations. In fact, and I want to say this as clearly as I can, my record belies those accusations."

Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, followed up with Ashcroft himself.

"Sen. Ashcroft, did you treat Ronnie White fairly?" Durbin asked.

"I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the committee and as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White," Ashcroft replied.

Ashcroft said he was bothered by White's record in death penalty cases and that the judge went out of his way to support defendants' rights, even in violent crimes. Anger from minority groups in Missouri ultimately helped cost Ashcroft his Senate seat, but it didn't stop his bid to become U.S. attorney general.

And White — now 60 years old — may yet have a second act too.

A spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, told NPR the past criticism of the judge is "completely unfounded" and said she "looks forward to supporting his nomination."

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, told reporters he won't block White's bid for a Senate vote either.

Conservative groups who follow judicial candidates are digging through his record. Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network says given the recent change in Senate rules, she thinks White will get through this time.

"It's definitely clear that with the new 51-vote threshold it's going to be very difficult to stop his nomination," Severino says. "So I think they're hoping to get through now some of these more extreme nominees that before would have required a bipartisan consensus to move on."

The White House didn't respond to questions about why it renominated White for a federal judgeship. But White may have offered an answer, in his Senate testimony a dozen years ago.

"There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected and particularly in the African-American community," White said. "And the reason for that outrage I believe, is when you have an African-American judge, African-Americans see that as one more step toward true equality."

For President Obama, who's made diversifying the bench a top priority, that may be reason enough to revisit the case of Ronnie White.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Throughout his time in office, President Obama has, for the most part, avoided political fights over specific judicial nominations. That's why his pick of a Missouri lawyer named Ronnie White has raised so many eyebrows. White was chosen for a federal judgeship by President Clinton back in the 1990s. It was then rejected by a Senate that was majority Republican. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, Ronnie White is now getting another chance at the federal bench.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Ronnie White has already made history in more ways than one. The Democratic lawyer served three terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. He became the first African-American on the state Supreme Court, sworn in at a court house where slaves were once sold on the steps. But 14 years ago as a federal judge nominee, White ran into the kind of roadblock that's rare, even in the U.S. Senate.

SARAH BINDER: We rarely ever see floor votes rejecting a nomination. That's what is so unusual and why I think almost everybody who's followed judicial nominations remembers the Ronnie White case.

JOHNSON: Sarah Binder is a political scientist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Binder and other experts say they can't remember a time when a judge who's been voted down in the Senate has been renominated.

BINDER: There may be a case way back when in the early 19th century. But for all intents and purposes, this is unprecedented for a president to come back and renominate someone.

JOHNSON: Ronnie White is unusual for another reason. After that vote in 1999, he took the opportunity to defend himself and his record by testifying against his chief Senate antagonist, Missouri Republican Senator John Ashcroft, who'd been nominated as attorney general by President George W. Bush in 2001. White told the Senate that he thought he had a clear path to the federal bench.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONNIE WHITE: And then I learned that Senator Ashcroft was opposing me. I was very surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me pro-criminal, with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity, that he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order.

JOHNSON: White told lawmakers that Ashcroft had distorted his record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITE: I deeply resent those baseless misreputations. In fact - and I want to say this as clearly as I can - my record belies those accusations.

JOHNSON: Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, followed up with Ashcroft himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Senator Ashcroft, did you treat Ronnie White fairly?

JOHN ASHCROFT: I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the committee and as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White.

JOHNSON: Ashcroft said he was bothered by White's record in death penalty cases and the way he went out of his way to support defendants' rights. Ashcroft's opposition kept White off the federal bench in 1999, but White's opposition didn't stop Ashcroft from becoming attorney general two years later. And Ronnie White - now 60 years old - may get his second chance, too.

Ashcroft's Senate seat is now held by Democrat Claire McCaskill. Her spokesman told NPR, McCaskill supports White and believes past criticism of him is, quote, "completely unfounded." Missouri's other senator, Republican Roy Blunt, has told reporters he won't block a full Senate vote on White. Conservative groups are digging through his record.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network says she thinks White will get through this time, given the recent change limiting the use of the filibuster against such nominations.

CARRIE SEVERINO: It's definitely clear that with the new 51-vote threshold, it's going to be very difficult to stop his nomination. So I think that they're hoping to get through now some of these more extreme nominees that before would have required a bipartisan consensus.

JOHNSON: The White House didn't respond to questions about why it renominated White, but White may have helped answer the question himself in testimony a dozen years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITE: There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected and particularly in the African-American community. And the reason for that outrage, I believe, is that when you have an African-American judge, African-Americans see that as one more step towards true equality.

JOHNSON: For President Obama, who's made diversifying the bench a top priority, that may be reason enough. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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