07.16.14

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Nomination of Judge Ronnie White

The Senate will vote today to try to end the unjustified filibuster against Judge Ronnie White, who has been nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.  Many Senators will remember Judge White from 15 years ago, when the Senate denied his confirmation by a party line vote after an ugly campaign by Republican Senators to caricature him as a jurist who was soft on crime.  Today, the Senate has an opportunity to reject that unjust characterization and confirm a well-qualified and principled man who has demonstrated his ability to be a fair judge and who is faithful to the law. 

Throughout his exceptional career, Judge White has been a trail blazer in the legal community.  In 1995, he became the first African American to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court, and later became the first African American to serve as its Chief Justice.  He previously served for two years as a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals.  Outside of his distinguished judicial service, Judge White has broad experience in the law, working in private practice as a partner in Missouri-based law firms both before and after his time on the bench, serving as City Counselor and Public Defender for St. Louis, Missouri and serving as a State Representative in the Missouri General Assembly.  He has been honored for his achievements and commitment to public service by organizations such as the Federal Defense Bar of the Eastern District of Missouri and the St. Louis branch of the NAACP.

I supported Judge White when he was first nominated to the U.S. District Court and I support him now.  In 1999, by the time the Senate voted on his nomination, Judge White had upheld the implementation of the death penalty 41 times as a state Supreme Court justice. Yet, then-Senator Ashcroft of Missouri claimed Judge White was “soft on crime” and was “the most anti-death penalty judge on the Missouri Supreme Court.”  These claims should have been easily dismissed years ago, and should be easily dismissed today.

Judge White’s nomination is supported by law enforcement, legal professionals, and the civil rights community.  The elected President of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, Kevin Ahlbrand, wrote on behalf of his organization’s 5,400 members:  “As front line law enforcement officers, we recognize the important need to have jurists such as Ronnie White, who have shown themselves to be tough on crime, yet fair and impartial. ...We can think of no finer or more worthy nominee.”  I ask consent that this letter, and others, be made a part of the Congressional Record.

Unfortunately, rather than admit that they made a mistake in voting against Judge White’s nomination before, some Senators are now saying they may oppose his nomination because in 2003 he joined the Missouri Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Simmons v. Roper holding that the Eight Amendment prohibits the execution of individuals who commit a capital crime when they are under 18 years of age.  In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.  The criticism, I gather, is that Judge White’s decision to join the majority opinion was contrary to then-existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  While I have heard some members of the Senate criticize a nominee for having asserted a position that is ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, this may be the first time I have heard a nominee criticized for actually getting it right.

At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Senator McCaskill introduced Judge White as someone who “continues to be a shining star to thousands of Missourians because of his career, which has really been emblematic of hard work, courage, dedication and service to public before self. … I can think of no one in the State of Missouri who is more deserving of this appointment to the Federal bench than my friend, Ronnie White.”  I thank Senator McCaskill for her leadership in recommending that President Obama nominate Judge White for this position.

Today Senators have an opportunity to right a wrong.  This chance is long overdue.  I am confident Judge White will serve on the Federal bench with distinction, and with fidelity to our Constitution.  I thank the Majority Leader for bringing this nomination up for a vote, and I urge my fellow Senators to vote to defeat this filibuster and to confirm this well qualified nominee without further delay. 

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