Blast From the Past: Failed ’90s Judicial Nominee Gets Second Chance (Updated)

In 1999, Biden, then a senator, criticized Republicans for blocking White's nomination. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
In 1999, Biden, then a senator, criticized Republicans for blocking White's nomination. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted November 18, 2013 at 3:23pm

Updated 7:12 p.m. | While most of the recent attention on nominations has focused on GOP filibusters of nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, another federal district court nomination will reopen an old chapter in the judicial wars.

That’s  because President Barack Obama nominated Ronnie L. White to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on Nov. 7.

White’s been through the process before — a GOP-controlled Senate rejected his nomination to the same court in 1999. He was first nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Then-Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., led the effort to derail the White nomination, making the case to fellow Republicans that White should not be confirmed. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the current vice president and a Democratic senator at the time, blasted the then-Republican majority for White’s surprise defeat.

Biden said he had no indication before the vote that Republicans were planning to block the nomination.

“The guy was actually, I’m told, here in the chamber to watch. Without any notice, without any ability to give us any opportunity to at least save this man the embarrassment of standing there, without any notice. Every Republican walks up and votes ‘no,'” Biden said. “Now that’s bad taste and taste matters, that’s bad form.”

Biden repeatedly referred to the White vote as an “ambush,” saying that the nominee wasn’t permitted the courtesy of additional hearings after new GOP concerns arose.

CQ Roll Call reported at the time that Ashcroft said White held views of criminal justice that were “pro-criminal and activist, with a slant toward criminals and defendants, against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order.”

Republicans were particularly unsatisfied with White’s views on the death penalty back then. Biden used his own record as a crime-fighter as an example of why he wouldn’t support a nominee who was soft on crime.

“I defy anybody in here to find anybody else — find me a cop that ain’t for Biden. Find me anybody else who is tougher on crime. Find me anybody else who has drafted or written more anti-crime legislation,” Biden said. “I thought the charge was specious, but that’s not the part that bothered me. I’m used to specious charges. What bothered me is the ambush.”

Democrats back then were not shy about suggesting that a racial element may have come into play in turning back White, the first African-American on the Missouri Supreme Court.

“I am hoping — and every senator will have to ask himself or herself this question — the United States has not reverted to a time in its history when there was a color test on nominations,” Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said, as the ranking Democrat in 1999.

Now 14 years later, White will start again at the beginning of the confirmation process. He left the Missouri Supreme Court in 2007 for private practice in St. Louis after a dozen years on the bench, meaning he has a far longer record than he did back in 1999.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said last week that he intended to return the “blue slip” on the White nomination, a sign-off from the home-state senators that is generally needed for the Judiciary Committee to take up the matter. Returning of “blue slips” is rather routine and does not suggest approval or support.

“This is impacted by Ronnie White’s 10 years on the … Missouri Supreme Court, after his first nomination,” Blunt emphasized last week, while declining to take a position on the nomination itself.

Update 7:12 p.m.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is backing the White nomination.

“The past criticisms of Ronnie White’s nomination were completely unfounded. Claire looks forward to supporting his nomination,” said a McCaskill spokesperson.

“I was glad to see him come back. I thought he was extraordinarily well-qualified the first time. I think that John Ashcroft made a bad mistake,” Leahy said last week. “Every single Democrat voted for him, and every single Republican voted against him. I think it was outrageous.”

The Senate rejected White on a party-line vote, 45-54, back in 1999.