John Ashcroft's First Six Months at the Justice Department: The Right Wing Dream Team Takes Over

Introduction

When President-elect George W. Bush announced that former U.S. Senator John Ashcroft would be his nominee for U.S. Attorney General, People For the American Way helped lead a coalition of extraordinary breadth and depth opposing his confirmation. Based on Ashcroft's record as a senator and as Missouri state attorney general and governor, public interest advocates believed that Ashcroft was a right-wing ideologue who should not be entrusted with overseeing the enforcement of laws and the protection of constitutional guarantees affecting civil rights, civil liberties, religious liberty, reproductive rights, environmental protection, and more. A copy of People For the American Way's exhaustively documented report, "The Case Against the Confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States" is available.

Six months into Ashcroft's tenure, it is clear that many of the concerns raised by public interest groups and hundreds of thousands of Americans were well warranted.

The soothing rhetoric Ashcroft employed at his confirmation hearings continues, but cannot hide the continued aggressive promotion of the far-right legal and ideological agenda that has marked his career in public office. The strategy of putting a moderate face on a far-from-moderate agenda makes Ashcroft in some ways emblematic of the Bush administration writ large, which has clearly internalized the advice of Bush campaign adviser and former Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed, who has urged his fellow Religious Right activists to shun harsh language in order to achieve their goals.

At the time of Ashcroft's nomination, People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas criticized Bush for choosing someone with a voting record to the right of Sen. Jesse Helms (according to 1997-1998 voting records analysis from the nonpartisan National Journal.) Said Neas, "On the key criterion of commitment to equal justice under the law, Ashcroft's record simply does not measure up to the standards the American people have a right to expect from the person entrusted with protecting their rights and their Constitution. John Ashcroft's record shows him to be a man who has not earned the people's high trust but has used his power and position to advance a far right agenda at the expense of Americans' fundamental rights and liberties."

Ashcroft has occasionally disappointed his allies on the far right, for example, by moving in one visible case to uphold federal law protecting clinics from anti-abortion protestors and defending a Department of Transportation affirmative action program. But there have been many more troubling actions or lack of action on a range of issues, including civil rights, civil liberties, gun control, the federal judiciary, church-state separation, and legal and constitutional interpretation. And what is already a poor record is nearly certain to get worse.

Indeed, in his first months in office, Ashcroft has assembled the radical right's Dream Team, giving Religious Right leaders and their political allies reason to believe that their all-out efforts on behalf of George W. Bush have paid off. Many of these appointees are just settling into office, so their full impact on public policy has not yet been felt.

This is particularly true about the top priority of the Bush administration and its right-wing allies - dominance of the Supreme Court and the entire federal judiciary by right-wing ideologues. Members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, whose legal philosophy is represented on the current Supreme Court by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, play central roles in the Justice Department and White House in the process by which federal judicial nominees are selected. It is in this arena that the Bush administration, if successful, will have the longest and most detrimental effect on American law and society, potentially overturning seven decades of social justice progress and blocking progressive initiatives for the next generation.

This report will highlight some of the appointees to important Justice Department positions, discuss the relevance of the Federalist Society affiliation of many of those nominees, consider the impact of Ashcroft and his legal team on the federal judiciary, and briefly review Department of Justice actions under Ashcroft in more than a dozen policy areas.

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