Ronnie White's Nomination Recalls Past Battles — And Hard Feelings | St. Louis Public Radio

Ronnie White's Nomination Recalls Past Battles — And Hard Feelings

Jun 19, 2014

Updated 12:22 p.m., Thurs., June 19: On June 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Ronnie White's nomination to the U.S. Senate floor. The committee's 10-7 affirmative vote makes it highly likely that White's nomination to the federal bench will be approved.

Here's the original story about White's nomination from April:

Nearly 15 years after the U.S. Senate rejected his nomination to be a federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Ronnie White is getting a second chance. President Barack Obama has nominated him again for the same type of judgeship.

Judge Ronnie White
Credit Missouri Supreme Court

On paper, White’s chances of confirmation appear more favorable than 1999, but some conservatives are raising similar issues — White’s opinions on death penalty cases — that derailed him before. Those rumblings have led some to wonder whether White’s nomination is in trouble again.

Still, both of Missouri’s U.S. senators predict that the U.S. Senate will affirm White’s nomination, but so far, he hasn’t gotten a hearing. A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy said the Vermont senator "is working with the Missouri senators to move forward with a bipartisan path toward confirmation."

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that she didn’t “think there’s any issue other than just timing of trying to get him through the process.”

“I’m sure there are some people who will oppose Ronnie White’s nomination,” McCaskill said. “But what happened to Ronnie White was terribly unfair. It was not based on his record. He has certainly been in the mainstream of the majority of the Missouri Supreme Court in terms of death penalty decisions.”

Politico reported that U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., hadn’t given his approval to the Senate Judiciary Committee for White’s nomination to move forward. During his conference call last Wednesday, Blunt said that a “background check” for White was still ongoing.

“I will probably not vote for Ronnie White because of law enforcement's strong feelings about this and the family members that are friends of mine that have even stronger feelings about the case that came up before,” Blunt said. “But I would expect him to be confirmed.”

St. Louis University Law School Dean Michael Wolff, who served with White on the Missouri Supreme Court, said that  the dynamics in the U.S. Senate are completely different from 1999.

"I’m thinking he would have solid votes coming out of the Judiciary Committee. And I think he’ll be confirmed rather readily," Wolff said. "If there is any of that dynamic in play, I think there are at least enough thoughtful Republicans that will look at it on the merits and vote for him."

Flashpoint in history

White’s nomination in the 1990s had a major impact on Missouri politics — and helped launch then-Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., into national prominence. 

John Ashcroft's opposition to Ronnie White's federal judgeship was a major turning point in the Republican's political career. Some say it contributed to his loss to Democrat Mel Carnahan. And it became a major issue during his confirmation hearing to be attorney general.
Credit (via Flickr/Pablo Manriquez)

White, who did not return a message for this story, had amassed an impressive public service resume when he was first nominated: He had served as a public defender, a lawyer for the St. Louis Housing Authority, a state representative and St. Louis city counselor. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, appointed him to the Missouri Court of Appeals in 1994 and then made him a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court a year later. He was the first African American to serve on Missouri’s highest court.

With the support of then-U.S. Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., President Bill Clinton nominated White in 1997 for a judgeship on the Eastern District Court of Missouri. It was seen as a remarkable achievement for a man who, as described in testimony before Congress in 2001, had worked as a janitor and a newspaper salesman during his youth to make ends meet.

But White’s nomination ran into fierce opposition from Ashcroft. He convinced his Republican colleagues to vote against White as a bloc — which amounted to a death knell since the GOP controlled the Senate at the time. White went back to serving on the Missouri Supreme Court until 2007 and has been in private practice ever since.

Wolff says that episode was painful for White,  but it didn’t stop him from doing his job.

“He went back to work,” Wolff said. “It was obviously an extraordinary disappointment and an extraordinarily painful experience for him and his family. But he got back up and went back and did his job.”

Much has been written — and speculated — about Ashcroft’s reasons for opposing White’s nomination. Some suggested that White’s role in the demise of an anti-abortion bill while Ashcroft was governor played a role. Others said the fight was aimed at boosting Ashcroft’s chances of beating Carnahan in a U.S. Senate race.

But when he took the Senate floor on Oct. 4, 1999, Ashcroft zeroed in on White’s decisions on death penalty cases before the Missouri Supreme Court. He said that White would “use the federal appointment to push the law in a pro-criminal direction consistent with his own personal political agenda, rather than defer to the legislative will of the people and interpret the law rather than expand it or redirect the law.”

(Wolff noted that emotions about the death penalty were running high in Missouri after Carnahan commuted a death sentence at the behest of Pope John Paul II.)

Ashcroft's scuttling of White’s nomination subsequently mobilized black voters to work for Carnahan in the 2000 U.S. Senate election. The Rev. B.T. Rice told Salon in 2001 that campaigning against Ashcroft  “sent a very clear message that that kind of demagoguery would not be tolerated.” Ashcroft, of course, lost his Senate seat, but was subsequently nominated to be attorney general.

The White episode became a prominent topic during his confirmation hearing. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., called Ashcroft’s blocking of White “the ugliest thing that has happened to any nominee in all my years in the U.S. Senate.” And U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned whether White was held to a “double standard.”

“If you look at the number of judges that Sen. Ashcroft supported who at least when you talk to some of the people who prepared the documentation for all those judges were clearly more liberal on criminal justice and other issues than you, but who were white, and then were voted for without any raising of any questions, it is extremely troubling,” Schumer said during Ashcroft’s 2001 confirmation hearings. “To me, it shows real insensitivity to our long and tortured history of racial relations.”

Ashcroft specifically repudiated racism during his confirmation hearing — and many of his supporters noted that he appointed black judges and established Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday. And when he testified before the Judiciary Committee during that same series of hearings, White said, “I don't think Sen. Ashcroft is a racist, and I wouldn't attempt to comment on what is in his mind or what is in his heart." Ashcroft was eventually confirmed as attorney general by a 58-42 vote.

"Hard case"

Wolff noted that much has changed between 1999 and today: For one thing, Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Democrats made it much more difficult for Republicans to filibuster Obama’s judicial nominees. And unlike 1999 — when both Ashcroft and then-Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., voted against White’s nomination — this time he has support from McCaskill. 

St. Louis Law School Dean Michael Wolff
Credit Courtesy Michael Wolff

Then, something happened to shake up conventional wisdom: The Senate blocked Debo Adegbile’s nomination for a position at the Department of Justice, thanks in part to Democrats facing tough re-election fights who voted again Adegbile. And that prompted National Review reporter Jonathan Keim to question whether White would be the next to face defeat.

In “The Next Debo Adegbile?” Keim wrote, “It’s hard to imagine that vulnerable Democratic senators would be excited about a floor vote on White’s nomination.” Keim emphasized White’s dissent in Missouri vs. Johnson, a death penalty appeals case decided in 1998.

That involved a case dating back to 1991, when James Johnson went on a shooting spree and killed four people, including Pam Jones, the wife of then-Moniteau County Sheriff Kenny Jones. (Pam Jones was also the mother of state Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County, and the aunt of House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.)

Johnson’s attorneys argued that Johnson was insane from post-traumatic stress disorder from the Vietnam War. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected that claim and Johnson was eventually executed. But White was the lone dissenter: “I am not convinced that the performance of his counsel did not rob Mr. Johnson of any opportunity he might have had to convince the jury that he was not responsible for his actions.” (Read the decision here.)

At the time of White’s first nomination, Kenny Jones – who later became a state representative and is now a member of the state board of probation and parole – called White’s dissent “a slap in the face to the crime victims and law enforcement officers.”

"This is a very hard case. If Mr. Johnson was in control of his faculties when he went on this murderous rampage, then he assuredly deserves the death sentence he was given. But the question of what Mr. Johnson's mental status was on that night is not susceptible of easy answers." — Ronnie White's dissent in Missouri v. Johnson

Blunt said there is opposition” to White’s nomination, adding that “at least a couple of major law enforcement groups have weighed in in the last few days.” And Keim contended it was “doubtful that senators who just voted against Adegbile’s nomination earlier this month would then vote for White, whose record would be more troubling to victims and law enforcement groups.”

But Wolff dismissed Keim’s contentions, saying the idea that Democrats in vulnerable districts would vote against White “fantasyland.”

“If you look back over the record of opinions that Judge White has written, he’s probably written as many as any affirming convictions in death sentences,” said Wolff.

For her part, McCaskill said she didn’t believe that the Senate “had a litmus test around here that if you ever dissented on a death penalty case for a reason such as ineffective assistance of counsel that that should disqualify you from further service as a justice.” (And Blunt added: “It seems to me that his general support of the death penalty — one of the big issues when this case was up before — is that he is supportive of the death penalty as one of the penalties that can be used.)

“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem,” McCaskill said.

If he's confirmed, White will join Duane Benton and Stephen Limbaugh as former Missouri Supreme Court judges serving in the federal judiciary. And Wolff said he'll bring a lot to the table.

“What a person brings to that job is a lifetime of experience," Wolff said. "Some successes, some failures. Some disappointments, some slights, some award that they all kind of go through. So I think he will be a reasonable, modest, moderate, decent judge.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.