People For the American Way has prepared this report in connection with the nomination of John D. Ashcroft to be Attorney General of the United States. It is extremely rare for People For the American Way to oppose the confirmation of a nominee for an Executive Branch position. But the extraordinary nature of John Ashcroft’s record as an elected official – including demonstrated indifference and hostility toward individual rights and equal opportunity – compels us to oppose his confirmation as Attorney General.
The Attorney General is not simply the lawyer for the President. Rather, the Attorney General is also the lawyer for all the people of this country, a person with the power to affect, for good or ill, the lives of all Americans. As head of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General makes decisions that determine how justice is defined and pursued by the Executive Branch. Among other things, the Attorney General is the principal enforcer of our nation’s civil rights laws and is entrusted with guaranteeing justice for all Americans. The Attorney General is also responsible for the enforcement of immigration laws and for federal laws protecting women’s reproductive freedom and the environment. In choosing which cases the Justice Department will take up, the Attorney General plays a critical role in determining whether our nation will keep its promise to all Americans of equal justice under the law or will abandon this goal in favor of a narrow, extremist, and exclusionary vision of justice.
More than any other Cabinet member, the Attorney General exerts critically important influence beyond the Executive Branch itself. Through the Justice Department's role in recommending nominees to the federal courts, the Attorney General plays a major part in deciding what kinds of judges will preside over our nation's federal courts. The screening and selection process carried out in the Justice Department determines whether the men and women who come before the Senate for confirmation to the third branch of government are fair-minded individuals committed to equal justice under law for all Americans or are ideologues chosen to advance a specific social and legal agenda.
The Attorney General reviews proposed legislation and renders advice as to whether particular proposals violate the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Through the Office of the Solicitor General, the Attorney General also represents the United States before the Supreme Court, where he or she is in a position to advocate on behalf of or in opposition to individual rights and freedoms and other matters of importance in the lives of all Americans.
For these reasons, the person chosen to be the Attorney General of the United States must be someone who has demonstrated the highest respect for the fundamental principles of equality under the law. The person confirmed to this critically important position must be committed to seeing to it that every American enjoys equal protection under the law and must be willing to pledge the power and resources at the Attorney General’s command to the pursuit of equal justice.
And because of the Attorney General’s unique powers and responsibilities as the nation’s chief lawyer and prosecutor, he or she must also be a person beyond reproach, a person of integrity and judgment, and one with a temperament fit for this special position.
For these reasons, a high standard should be applied to the consideration of a nominee for Attorney General. The special nature of the Office of Attorney General should be of principal concern to the Senate Judiciary Committee as it considers Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination. As former Solicitor General Archibald Cox stated fifteen years ago:
- Respect for the law, the fairness with which law is administered, is the foundation of a free society. The individual who becomes Attorney General can do more by his past record than his conduct in office to strengthen or erode confidence in the fairness, impartiality, integrity, freedom from taint of personal influence, in the administration of law.
Confirmation of Edwin Meese III: Hearings before the Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 99th Cong., 1st Sess. 450 (1985).
In this report, we present an overview of John Ashcroft’s voting record during his term in the United States Senate and of various actions and positions that he has taken during that time with respect to matters that bear upon his fitness to serve as the Attorney General of the United States. We do not attempt to address in this report the entirety of Ashcroft’s record as a public official, which spans more than two decades, and includes not only his recent term in the Senate but also his service first as Attorney General and then as Governor of Missouri. An analysis of Ashcroft’s record as a state official in Missouri will follow in a subsequent report.
In the discussion below, we focus principally on examples from John Ashcroft’s Senate record where he has deviated substantially from the mainstream on a number of issues critical to the consideration of a nominee for Attorney General, including civil and constitutional rights and individual freedoms, and on the principles of fairness, equal justice, judgement, and integrity. As demonstrated below, Ashcroft’s record is one of rigidity and extremism. His views place him at the far right of the Republican Party, making him one of the most ultra conservative members of Congress and putting him out of step with the vast majority of Americans.
This report discusses at some length Senator Ashcroft’s extensive role in opposing various minority candidates for judicial and Executive Branch positions. We do not contend that John Ashcroft is a racist, as some have claimed about him. Rather, the issue here is John Ashcroft’s failure to demonstrate a commitment to fairness and equal opportunity, a commitment that should be considered a prerequisite for one who aspires to be the Attorney General. The issue is also John Ashcroft’s lack of sensitivity and concern about the rights of women and minorities, as well as his ideological rigidity, all qualities that are antithetical to the ability to serve all Americans as our Attorney General.
In sum, Ashcroft’s record in the Senate is not one that will, in the words of Archibald Cox, "strengthen confidence" in the fairness of the administration of law. To the contrary, it is a record of insensitivity toward those who most need the protections of the law, a record that leads inexorably to the conclusion that John Ashcroft should not be confirmed as Attorney General of the United States.