First day of Ashcroft’s Testimony Damages his Credibility, says PFAW’s Neas
Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft seriously damaged his credibility by distorting the record regarding the St. Louis desegregation case in his first day of testimony, said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas today.
“John Ashcroft’s supporters have staked this nomination on his integrity,” said Neas. “After the first day of hearings, that looks like a shaky foundation.”
In describing the St. Louis desegregation case, in which Ashcroft played a key role both as Missouri Attorney General and Governor, Ashcroft seriously misrepresented both the state’s liability in the case and his own actions.
“It is not surprising that John Ashcroft wants to deflect attention from his decade-long scorched-earth opposition to voluntary desegregation in St. Louis,” said Neas. “But it is disturbing that he has distorted the truth before the Judiciary Committee.”
Said Neas, “John Ashcroft’s record on desegregation and his efforts to disguise that record make it clear that he is not the man for this job.”
1. Ashcroft on state involvement as a party in the case:
Ashcroft claimed that ” while I was Attorney General, I inherited a desegregation lawsuit in St. Louis from my predecessor in office, Jack Danforth. The state had been sued. I argued on behalf of the state of Missouri that it could not be found legally liable for segregation in St. Louis schools because the state had never been party to the litigation.” He added that “if the state hadn’t been made a party to the litigation and the state is being asked to do things to remedy the situation, I think it’s important to ask the opportunity for the state to have a kind of due process and the protection of the law that an individual would expect.”
The state had been made a party to the litigation, and that occurred during Ashcroft’s tenure as Missouri Attorney General, not Danforth’s. As the Court of Appeals stated in response to one of Ashcroft’s appeals, “the State of Missouri, the Missouri Commissioner of Education, and the Missouri Board of Education were added as defendants pursuant to various district court orders in the summer of 1977,” while Ashcroft was Attorney General. Liddell v. Board of Educ., 667 F.2d 643, 657 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1081, 1091 (1981). The appellate court had made exactly the same point the year before in Adams v. United States, 620 F.2d 1277,1283 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 826 (1980).
2. Ashcroft on State Liability
Ashcroft claimed in his testimony that “the court sought to make the state responsible and liable for the payment of these very substantial sums of money and the state had not been found really guilty of anything.” Ashcroft also said the state had “done nothing wrong” and was “found guilty of no wrong.”
The state was found directly liable for illegal school segregation in St. Louis, despite repetitive and unsuccessful appeals by Ashcroft all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 1980, the court of appeals reversed the finding of a lower court and ruled that both the state and the city school board were liable for segregation. Adams v. United States, et al. 620 F.2d 1277, 1280, 1291, 1294-95 (8th Cir.) cert. denied, 449 U.S. 826 (1980). The state’s improper conduct included previously mandating, over a period of years, the interdistrict transfer of black students into segregated city schools to maintain segregation. Id. at 1280.
In June 1980, the district court made specific findings of fact and conclusions of law making clear the state’s liability. The court explained that the “State of Missouri, which prior to 1954 mandated school segregation, never took any effective steps to dismantle the dual system it had compelled by constitution, statutory law, practice and policy.” Liddell et al. v. Bd. of Ed. of City of St. Louis, et al., 491 F.Supp. 351, 357, (E.D. Mo. 1980) aff’d, 667 F.2d 643 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U.S. 1081 (1981). After a lengthy legal analysis, the court concluded that “the State defendants stand before the Court as primary constitutional wrongdoers who have abdicated their remedial duty. Their efforts to pass the buck among themselves and other state instrumentalities must be rejected.” Id. at 359.
Ashcroft appealed this ruling. Among his other arguments, he claimed that the court of appeals never overruled the lower court’s “earlier finding of non-liability on the part of the State.” Liddell, supra, 667 F.2d at 654. The court of appeals rejected Ashcroft’s argument as “wholly without merit.” Id. It explained that it had earlier found the State to be liable, and also affirmed the district court’s finding that the state defendants were “primary constitutional wrongdoers” as having “ample support in the record.” Id. at 655. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Ashcroft’s attempt to appeal the decision. 454 U.S. 1081, 1091 (1981).
Ashcroft again took the issue to the court of appeals in 1982, claiming again that the district court could not order the state to help fund voluntary city-suburb desegregation. The court of appeals again rejected Ashcroft, stating again that the state defendants were “primary constitutional wrongdoers” that could be ordered to take the action that Ashcroft resisted. Liddell, 677 F.2d 626, 628-29, (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 877 (1982). Again the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Ashcroft’s attempted appeal.
Ashcroft again contested state liability to help pay for voluntary city-suburb desegregation as his term as Attorney General was ending in 1983-84. The court of appeals again turned him down. The court painstakingly explained how it had already rejected the state’s arguments against voluntary city-suburb desegregation on three prior occasions, and that the Supreme Court had denied review each time. Liddell, 731 F.2d 1294, 1302-05 (8th Cir.) cert. denied, 469 U.S. 816 (1984). Nevertheless, the court considered Ashcroft’s arguments yet another time and again rejected them. Id. at 1305-9. Once again, the Supreme Court denied review.
As the district court stated in an order at the end of 1984, “if it were not for the state of Missouri and its feckless appeals, perhaps none of us would be here today” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/30/84)(emphasis added).
3. Ashcroft on following court orders:
Ashcroft claimed that in the St. Louis case, “[i]n all of the cases where the court made an order, I followed the order, both as attorney general and as governor.”
Ashcroft repeatedly sought to delay and thwart court orders. (see The Case Against the Confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States Part II: The Missouri Years, People For the American Way, pp 16-24.) One 1981 federal district court order directly contradicts Ashcroft’s claim. In 1980-81, the court ordered the state and the city board simply to submit plans for voluntary desegregation. After repeated delays and failure to comply by Ashcroft, the court threatened in March 1981 to hold the state in contempt if it did not meet the latest deadline. The court order explicitly criticized the state’s “continual delay and failure to comply” with court orders, directly contradicting Ashcroft’s claim yesterday. (AP 3/5/81). The court also specifically stated the following: “The court can draw only one conclusion – the state has, as a matter of deliberate policy, decided to defy the authority of the court,” which Ashcroft said yesterday he thought was “unfair” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3/5/81).
4. Ashcroft on his supposed support for desegregation
Ashcroft denied that he “opposed voluntary desegregation” in St. Louis, and said “nothing could be farther from the truth.” He asserted that “I don’t oppose desegregation” and that “I am in favor of integration,” and suggested that his only objection in St. Louis was the cost of the plan.
There are numerous examples where Ashcroft publicly and vehemently voiced his opposition to desegregation. In 1984, he called the St. Louis desegregation plan an “outrage against human decency.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 6/15/84). In his 1984 gubernatorial campaign, he appeared to wear a threatened contempt citation against him as a badge of honor, stating that he had done “everything in his power legally” to fight the plan, and suggesting that listeners “[a]sk Judge (William) Hungate who threatened me with contempt.” (UPI 2/12/84). In 1981, he even opposed a plan by the Reagan Administration for voluntary desegregation, based not just on cost but also because it would allegedly attract “the most motivated” black city students, even though the city school board itself disagreed (Newsweek, 5/18/81).
Contemporaneous statements both by those who agreed and disagreed with Ashcroft’s position make clear his opposition to desegregation. For example, the Post-Dispatch commented that Ashcroft and his Republican gubernatorial primary opponent in 1984 were “trying to outdo each other as the most outspoken enemy of school integration in St. Louis,” and were “exploiting and encouraging the worst racist sentiments that exist in the state.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3/11/84) The Daily Dunklin Democrat, which had supported Ashcroft’s desegregation appeals, nevertheless criticized the campaign as “reminiscent of an Alabama primary in the 1950s.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 10/26/84). An African-American newspaper, the St. Louis American, was even harsher towards Ashcroft. “Here is a man who has no compunction whatsoever to standing on the necks of our young people merely for the sake of winning political favor,” it wrote. “Ashcroft implies at every news conference, radio and television interview that he couldn’t care less what happens to black school children.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/29/84)
In fact, in a court hearing in the 1980s, desegregation expert Dr. Gary Orfield testified that the arguments employed by Ashcroft’s office and the state reminded him of the defense of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education itself. Orfield was reported as stating that he had been reading the Brown transcript “where the attorney representing the government of South Carolina argued that it would be educationally better to leave the black children segregated.” He explained that “I thought I wouldn’t hear state government producing that argument again” but was “very disappointed to hear it” in the St. Louis case (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11/7/82).
Click here to read our report on Ashcroft’s Missouri record.
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