BOSTON -- Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri is on the extreme right of American politics. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee he worked to block the confirmation process, without a hearing, of any judicial nominee he suspected of the faintest liberal taint. He sought to outlaw abortions even for victims of rape or incest.
His rigid ideology makes him a strange choice to be attorney general of the United States. But for anyone who reveres that office, as I do, one particular episode shows that Senator Ashcroft is unfit to hold it. He knowingly, for political reasons, uttered vicious falsehoods about a respected judge.
The episode arose from the nomination of a Missouri Supreme Court justice, Ronnie White, to be a federal district judge. The Judiciary Committee approved him. But when the nomination came to the Senate floor, the Republican majority defeated it at Senator Ashcroft's urging.
As his reasons for killing the nomination, Senator Ashcroft said that Justice White had shown "a tremendous bent toward criminal activity," that he was "pro-criminal" and that he had a "poor record on the death penalty." Those statements were lies.
On the Missouri court, Justice White had voted to uphold the death penalty in 41 appeals. In 10 other cases he joined a majority of the court in reversing because of legal error. Judges who had been appointed by Mr. Ashcroft when he was governor of Missouri voted as often or more often to reverse death penalty judgments.
Senator Ashcroft focused on one case in which Justice White had dissented alone. It was the conviction and death sentence of Brian Kinder for rape and murder.
The trial judge in the Kinder case, Earl R. Blackwell, was up for re- election. Six days before the trial, he issued a statement saying he was switching parties. "The Democrat Party," he said, "places far too much emphasis on representing minorities such as homosexuals, people who don't want to work and people with a skin that's any color but white. . . . While minorities need to be represented, of course, I believe the time has come for us to place much more emphasis and concern on the hard-working taxpayers in this country."
Mr. Kinder, who was black, asked the judge to recuse himself because of his hostile statement suggesting that minorities were not "hard-working taxpayers." When the judge refused to step aside, the issue was raised on appeal.
The majority of the Missouri Supreme Court, departing from precedent, said Judge Blackwell's statement did not disqualify him from this trial because it was a "political act, not a judicial one." By that logic, a judge who made a political speech in favor of the American Nazi Party would not be disqualified from trying a Jewish defendant. It was from that position that Justice White dissented.
But then Senator Ashcroft may not have a fine-tuned ethical sense on the issue of recusal. According to news reports, he was sitting in judgment in the impeachment trial of President Clinton in 1999 when his political action committee rented its fund- raising list to Linda Tripp for $2,500.
There was nothing in the Kinder case, or the others mentioned by Senator Ashcroft, that would make any reasonable person think Justice White was "pro-criminal." The Missouri police organization endorsed him for the federal judgeship.
Justice White is black, the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court. Minority organizations denounced Senator Ashcroft after the Senate vote, suggesting that he had been motivated by racism. He strongly denied that, saying "the same God judges all of us by the content of our character, not the color of our skin." I know no reason to doubt his denial.
Why, then, did he do it? By all signs the answer is politics. He was facing a re-election fight against the governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, who had commuted a death sentence at the request of Pope John Paul II. Senator Ashcroft thought it would help to run as tough on crime and execution.
As politics, that performance was shameful. For the office of attorney general, it should be dispositive.
The nomination will be the first serious test of the 50 Democrats in the new Senate. One of their senior members, Joseph Biden of Delaware, has said he is "inclined to vote for" John Ashcroft. Does honor count for nothing in the country's chief law enforcement officer?
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company