The case for John Ashcroft

Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice says Ashcroft champions civil rights, rules by law and will make a great attorney general.

Published January 16, 2001 4:11PM (EST)

As confirmation hearings begin for Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft Tuesday, his ideological adversaries are sure to get a lot noisier. Abortion rights organizations, environmental activists, affirmative action advocates and supporters of greater gun control have all lined up to oppose his bid. Civil rights groups are also solidly against him, in part because of his stand against affirmative action and also as a consequence of his record on other racially sensitive topics.

But Ashcroft's friends are raising their voices, too. One of those friends is Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a Washington think tank. Though Bolick's organization hasn't joined any of the coalitions for Ashcroft, and the Institute for Justice disagrees with some of Ashcroft's policy stands, Bolick claims that the career conservative is getting a bum rap and that his confirmation shouldn't be stopped.

What's your impression of John Ashcroft as a person?

John Ashcroft is a man of enormous integrity. That is a characteristic that is in terribly short supply in Washington. He believes to his core in the rule of law.

Ashcroft has strong religious convictions that have led him to conclude that abortion is murder. Is it fair to ask the question whether those beliefs would intrude on his ability to enforce laws that recognize abortion as a constitutionally protected right?

It's always fair to ask the question. We have had attorney generals in the past who have opposed Roe vs. Wade, and really nothing much has changed. Really, the only influence the attorney general would have on abortion is to make his or her views known to the Supreme Court. For the most part, the Justice Department runs on autopilot, with thousands of attorneys making the day-to-day decisions about which cases get pursued.

Furthermore, an attorney general simply cannot refuse to enforce laws regarding people's rights. If he did, he would be impeached. It is important to both [pro-choice and pro-life] groups whether the attorney general is pro-choice or pro-life. In terms of the real world, however, there is simply not going to be much effect.

How would you address concerns from the civil rights community about Ashcroft's opposition to the appointment of African-American judge Ronnie White to the Missouri Supreme Court?

It's absurd. Ashcroft opposes liberal judges no matter if they are black or white. If John Ashcroft is ineligible to be attorney general because he voted against Ronnie White's confirmation, so would more than 50 other Republican senators.

But those senators rejected White at Ashcroft's instigation.

Not everyone who voted against Ronnie White is a die-hard conservative. [Pennsylvania Sen.] Arlen Specter voted against White, and he's been known to buck the Republican tide. In order for Ashcroft to succeed in making the case against White, he would have to have real justification for his concerns, and he did.

White's dissents in death penalty cases are extremely troublesome. In several capital cases, White was the only dissenting judge. In one case involving an insanity defense, White voted to overturn the death penalty for a brutal serial murder. And it wasn't just the facts of the case that were disturbing. The wording of White's dissent would have expanded the insanity defense in such a way that would have jeopardized several death penalty cases.

Do you think that the charges that racism was involved in Ashcroft's opposition to Ronnie White would be ignored were it not for his speech at the historically racist Bob Jones University, his interview in Southern Partisan magazine, and his other links to neo-Confederate movement?

I have concerns about Sen. Ashcroft's interview in Southern Partisan, and I would not appear at Bob Jones University, though conservatives -- especially religious conservatives -- have frequently done so. If I were his advisor, I would have told him not to do it. But doing an interview with a publication doesn't mean you endorse all of its ideas, and appearing at a university doesn't mean you believe in all its policies.

I don't think those actions were in totally good judgment, but at the same time, he's done so much else for civil rights in his career. He co-sponsored congressional hearings on racial profiling, approved the state's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and signed a state hate crimes law, which is more liberal than most of his colleagues. He also has supported several key African-American judicial appointments.

What's the strongest argument for Ashcroft to be confirmed?

He is a man who believes in the word that he gives. He is one of the few people I've encountered in Washington who does stand up for his beliefs, and does what he says he will do. We disagree with Ashcroft on issues of flag desecration and the drug war, but I know he will be guided by the law rather than political whim. As a result, we will finally have an attorney general who we can trust to do the right thing.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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