Remarks by Ralph Neas on PFAW Latest Report

Release of The Case Against the Confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States Part Two: The Missouri Years

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here. My name is Ralph G. Neas, and I am president of People For the American Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties.

I am joined today by our Deputy Legal Director Judith Schaeffer, who along with our legal director Elliot Mincberg is a primary author of the report. And by William Taylor, who heads the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights and was a lead attorney in the St. Louis school desegreation case for nearly two decades. I will spend a few minutes giving an overview of the report we are releasing today and then we'll take your questions.

On January 4, People For the American Way published an overview of John Ashcroft's six-year record in the United States Senate. That report shows clearly that John Ashcroft does not meet the high standards of fairness and integrity required of the Attorney General. He has not demonstrated a sufficient commitment to equal justice under the law to be entrusted with upholding the Constitution and our nation's civil rights laws.

The report we are releasing today covers Ashcroft's eight years as Governor of Missouri and eight years as the state's Attorney General. This report supports and underscores the conclusion we reached in Part One: John Ashcroft should not be confirmed to the office of U.S. Attorney General.

His record in Missouri is deeply disturbing.

Now I know why George W. Bush and Trent Lott and Jim Nicholson did not want People For the American Way looking at the public documents regarding the public record of John Ashcroft.

The record shows John Ashcroft as a relentless crusader for extreme causes who used the powers of his public positions to seek to drastically cut back or eliminate reproductive rights.

It shows a man who, more than a quarter of a century after Brown v. Board of Education, used the resources of his office in a divisive, single-minded fight to obstruct even voluntary desegregation of the St. Louis schools. It shows a troubling insensitivity to the rights and needs of minorities and the poor. It shows an intemperance that scorns any viewpoint he disagrees with, seeks confrontation over compromise, and, most troubling of all, appears dedicated not to upholding the law and the Constitution, but to bending them to conform to an extremist ideology.

The first section of the report covers John Ashcroft's record on reproductive choice. It is, of course, no news that John Ashcroft is an ardent foe of abortion rights.

Our report on his Senate record made clear that he is at the far fringe of the anti-abortion movement, supporting a constitutional amendment that would not only ban abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, but could be used to ban common forms of contraception like birth control pills and IUDs.

A review of his career in Missouri, however, reveals a pattern of behavior that is far more troubling than his extremist anti-abortion positions. It reveals a pattern of behavior that speaks directly to the question of whether John Ashcroft can be trusted to fairly enforce laws with which he disagrees.

As Attorney General and Governor, John Ashcroft supported legislation that was clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. Indeed, as Attorney General, Ashcroft played a particularly active role in defending efforts by the state to restrict women's reproductive rights.

In Planned Parenthood v. Ashcroft, he personally argued the case before the Supreme Court in defense of a Missouri law requiring, among other abortion restrictions, that all second-trimester abortions be performed in hospitals, not outpatient clinics.

The hospital requirement would have made it very difficult for many women, particularly poor women, to obtain an abortion because of the cost, inaccessibility and, in some cases, unavailability of abortions at hospitals. The Supreme Court struck down the requirement.

In Sermchief v. Gonzales and State of Missouri, Ashcroft both intervened and submitted an amicus brief in a case in which a state agency was attempting to block professional nurses from being able to provide routine gynecological services. These included conducting breast and pelvic examinations, performing PAP smears and other lab tests, and providing and giving out information about contraceptives.

The entire Missouri Supreme Court rejected Ashcroft's position and ruled unanimously that professional nurses could perform these services under Missouri statutes.

The exceptional nature of the case at that time was noted by the Missouri Supreme Court, which stated that despite at least forty states having modernized or expanded their nursing laws in the prior fifteen years, the Attorney General's office and other state counsel could not cite a single case anywhere challenging the authority of nurses to perform similar services.

As Governor, he proposed legislation that would prohibit women from having a second abortion except to protect their health. He was undeterred by the law's clear unconstitutionality. Evidence of the extreme nature of the bill was that it effectively died in less than a week in the solidly anti-choice Missouri General Assembly.

In sum, Ashcroft's record on reproductive rights during his Missouri years is one of an activist with ultra-conservative views and an approach whereby the ends justified the means. With respect to a woman's constitutional right to choose and other reproductive rights, Ashcroft's record indicates an extreme view that raises serious questions about his respect for existing law and the ability to provide balanced and impartial counsel in this area.

Based on his record during his Missouri and U.S. Senate years, if confirmed as Attorney General, millions of American women would not be able to count on John Ashcroft to protect their fundamental reproductive rights. Instead, they would have an Attorney General who will do everything within his power to undermine and roll back these rights.

Another section of the report chronicles an exceptionally disturbing campaign against racial desegregation of Missouri schools. John Ashcroft's record goes well beyond policy differences on the issue of desegregation.

For more than three years, John Ashcroft, as Missouri's attorney general, relentlessly fought efforts by others in the community to forge a resolution to the problem of segregation in St. Louis schools. He strenuously resisted efforts to shape a voluntary desegregation plan, filing appeal after appeal, earning scathing criticism from observers and leaders in the community.

Ashcroft's tactics were likened to the "massive resistance" employed by virulent segregationists during the early days of the civil rights movement. Religious leaders, including the St. Louis Archbishop, united in opposition to Ashcroft's rheteoric and tactics on desegregation. Newspapers and commentators around the state regularly and roundly denounced him.

Perhaps the most stinging rebuke of all came from the federal court in ruling against Ashcroft's attempts to block payment of plaintiffs' attorneys' fees in the case on the grounds that they were excessive. The judge wrote, "If it were not for the State of Missouri and its feckless appeals, perhaps none of us would be here today." Ashcroft employed such racially divisive rhetoric against desegregation efforts, particularly in his campaign for governor, that he was even criticized by fellow Republicans.

The report documents this sorry record in great detail, and it paints a picture of an elected official using every possible tactic, including failure to comply with federal court orders, to thwart desegregation.

We urge every Senator to review this section of our report, which holds great relevance to one of the questions squarely before the Senate - can John Ashcroft be trusted to fully and fairly enforce laws that he disagrees with? Should he be entrusted with upholding the Constitution and enforcing laws that protect civil rights, reproductive rights, and the environment?

The evidence is no.

In 1993, as his term as Governor was ending, Ashcroft decided to run for the position of Chairman of the Republican National Committee. The reaction speaks to Ashcroft's temperament.

Notably, some Republican legislators and local leaders from Missouri who knew the most about him said he was too extreme for the job and that he was not receptive to people with different views. An important aspect of these statements, but not the only one, was the concern about Ashcroft's extreme views on abortion.

For example, Republican State Senator Robert Johnson said that Ashcroft had stopped talking to him because of differences over their views on abortion. Johnson stated that Ashcroft "won't take criticism, and if you disagree with him, he knocks you out of the loop, like you don't exist." Republican State Rep. Connie Wible reportedly stated that she hoped the Republicans would choose an RNC Chair "who is truly a moderate Republican, because we're in a position where the party needs to prove we are not extremists." Pro-choice Republican leader Karen Grace advised national republicans to be "very careful" in considering Ashcroft, stating that "[Ashcroft is] trying to present himself as a more moderate person than I think he is."

According to press accounts, even anti-choice Republican legislators stated that Ashcroft was in tolerant of differing views within the party and thus implied he might not be a good fit for the RNC Chair position. For example, Republican State Sen. Dennis Smith, "an abortion foe from Ashcroft's hometown of Springfield," stated: "Can he accommodate opinions that differ from his own? My opinion is that it'll be hard for John to do that." Another Republican anti-choice legislator, State Rep. Todd Smith, said that "[t]he governor can get along with you - if you change your tune."

The criticism of Ashcroft by local Republican leaders came not just from those involved in battles over reproductive rights, but also extended to those involved in civil rights, desegregation and other matters. For example, Rev. Eugene Fowler, a local African American Republican activist, complained about Ashcroft's role as leader of the state Republican party and the use of a weighted voting system by which more power is given to party activists in "high-turnout voting wards (typically white)."

In the end, Ashcroft lost out on his bid for the RNC Chairman position to Haley Barbour, a former White House political director in the Reagan Administration who was also anti-choice and conservative. If John Ashcroft is too extreme to be chair of the Republican National Committee, surely he is to extreme to be Attorney General of the United States.

Our report also looks at Governor Ashcroft's record on executive and judicial branch appointments, a topic that is relevant given the attorney general's role in proposing and vetting nominees for the federal courts. The report documents a disturbing pattern of cronyism in his appointments to the state bench, including the state Supreme Court, and documents Ashcroft's abysmal record in appointing women to the state judiciary and positions in his administration.

In 1989, a survey by the National Women's Political Caucus revealed that Ashcroft was the only governor in the country with an appointed Cabinet that did not include any women, ranking Ashcroft last among the nation's governors. In 1990, after serving as Governor for five years, Ashcroft had one woman in his Cabinet.

With respect to the appointment of African Americans, Ashcroft's record was mixed. A former member of one judicial commission commented that the judicial selection process was "still a white male bastion." The head of the National Association of Blacks Within Government noted in 1988 that there was one black member in Ashcroft's cabinet, but that in "most offices in Jefferson City, it's an ocean of whiteness."

The report also covers two topics dealing with the issue of separation of church and state. This constitutional principle is the foundation of Americans' religious liberty. Yet John Ashcroft's record in the Senate and the state of Missouri show a cavalier disregard for church-state separation and the principle of government neutrality toward religion.

As Governor, he staunchly opposed efforts to require church-run day care centers to meet even minimal health and safety regulations such as state fire codes or health requirements. Missouri was the only state that exempted them completely from those regulations.

As Governor, Ashcroft also signed into law a bill eliminating the requirement that colleges training Missouri teachers be accredited by a regional accrediting agency. The law was enacted - over the objections of state educators -- to benefit the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri - Jerry Falwell's alma mater - which had never sought accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for "philosophical differences."

We believe that a full review of Senator Ashcroft's record makes it clear that, while he may be well-qualified to lead a right-wing political organization like Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition or the National Rifle Association, he is not qualified to lead the United States Department of Justice.

We urge President-elect George W. Bush to withdraw his nomination.

And we urge every Senator to review the information in this report, and all the other information that is being made available to them. We believe the evidence is overwhelming that John Ashcroft is the wrong person for this job.

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Click here to read the People For the American Way report on Ashcroft's Missouri record.

Click here to learn more about John Ashcroft.

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