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Liberals, conservatives clash on Bush's nomination for attorney general
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Who is John Ashcroft?
Supporters of the former Missouri attorney general, governor, U.S. senator and now President-elect Bush's nominee for U.S. attorney general say Ashcroft has a history of working to build consensus despite his staunchly conservative views on issues such as abortion, federalism and separation of church and state.
But detractors paint him as a polarizing figure and fear that he would recommend conservative jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court if vacancies arise, work toward increasing government involvement in religion, and attempt to scale back abortion rights and anti-discrimination protections.
Ashcroft, 58, whose nomination Bush announced Friday, must be confirmed by the evenly divided Senate before he can take over from two-term Attorney General Janet Reno.
"There is no question that philosophically he is pro-life, he is a very religious individual. But I think in his stint as a governor and attorney general of Missouri, he was fair and balanced and a person who applied the law fairly," said Rick Hardy, an Ashcroft acquaintance who teaches political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"I don't think he is somebody you need to be afraid of if you're a liberal ... I don't see him as a person who will be shoving his views down your throat," said Hardy, whom Ashcroft appointed to a state law-enforcement commission. "I think he might surprise a lot of liberals. Conservatives may be saying, 'Aha, we have a person who will do our agenda,' ... they may find he is an ally but don't expect him to be leading all the charges."
Edward D. Robertson Jr., a St. Louis, Missouri, lawyer who was Ashcroft's deputy attorney general and chief of staff when Ashcroft became governor, said his former boss appointed the first woman to the Missouri Supreme Court and had a history of appointing moderates to the bench.
And he never asked his judicial appointees about their views on abortion or other hot-button political issues, said Robertson, whom Ashcroft appointed to the Missouri high court in 1985.
"I do not know of a litmus test that he applied. I think calling him conservative is correct but people who call him hard right are incorrect," Robertson said. "John is the least rigid of the people I know who are conservative."
Ashcroft believes the "legislative branch should be given deference but they also should be held accountable," Robertson said.
Ashcroft, who values strict readings of the Constitution, believes "judges ... ought not to be legislating, but instead should be willing to say the Constitution does not provide any answer here," allowing legislatures to tackle such tricky questions, Robertson said.
Laura Murphy, director the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, who said Ashcroft has one of the most hard-line conservative voting records of any U.S. senator.
The ACLU gives Ashcroft a 14 percent approval rating for his Senate votes on issues such as abortion, affirmative action and separation of church and state.
"It's not like throwing a bone to the far right, it's like throwing a carcass," Murphy said. "He's voted for school vouchers, against affirmative action, against abortion. He has voted for very punitive juvenile justice legislation. He has voted for a constitutional amendment (banning) flag desecration. He is the architect of efforts to give federal funding to religiously controlled institutions -- he doesn't seem to have much regard for separation of church and state."
She said the attorney general is responsible for "articulating the administration's vision for a variety of rights," and for defending the government when federal laws are challenged, articulating policies for the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies. The attorney general also plays a role in recommending Supreme Court nominees, she noted.
"My hope is he will take himself out of the partisan cast and see himself as the standard bearer for civil rights and civil liberties because that is what the Justice Department is supposed to do," Murphy said.
Though the ACLU and other liberal groups are disappointed at Ashcroft's nomination, Murphy said the ACLU seeks common ground with every attorney general, no matter their political inclination, and hoped that Ashcroft would be receptive to views sharply different from his.
Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor, discounted the notion that the attorney general is, by definition, a politically neutral figure because he or she merely applies laws passed by Congress and interpreted by the courts.
For instance, whether the federal government "fights discrimination or backs off" depends on the "political and philosophical bent of the attorney general," Goldstein said, adding that the attorney general also plays a key role in recommending names of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees to the president.
"I think it is a mistake to think of the attorney general as somebody who is going to neutrally enforce the law," he said.
A few years back, Ashcroft led the effort in the U.S. Senate to prevent a black Missouri high court justice from being named to a federal court, Goldstein said. Ashcroft's supporters said it was the jurist's partiality toward prisoners' rights at the expense of police power -- not race -- that drew Ashcroft's opposition.
Goldstein said Ashcroft, who won overwhelming support from staunchly conservative groups like the Christian Coalition while contemplating a presidential bid this year, is "one of the favorites of the right and particularly the cultural or religious conservatives."
A native of Chicago and a longtime resident of Springfield, Missouri, Ashcroft graduated from Yale University in 1964 and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago three years later.
He was Missouri attorney general from 1976-85 and governor from 1985-93. A year later, he was won election to the U.S. Senate, serving on the Judiciary, Foreign Relations and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees. Married, he belongs to the Assembly of God Christian church.
Kelly Wallace: Ashcroft pick pleases conservatives
American Civil Liberties Union
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