Ashcroft: Principle above self

Posted: Jan 20, 2001 12:00 AM
What is it that liberal interest groups and certain Democratic senators fear about a Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department? What is driving Ted Kennedy to threaten a filibuster against Ashcroft's confirmation? Though there seems to be a subtle charge of racism in the air, Democrats are denying any such implications. "It's the rule of law they're worried about," they say. Given Ashcroft's "extreme views," will he be able to enforce laws with which he strongly disagrees? I think it's fair to ask, with all due respect, about the Senate Democrats' newfound affinity for the rule of law. I don't want to be sarcastic here, but these are the same senators who, without exception, consistently refused to bring Clinton to account. They all but ridiculed Republicans for their stodgy invocations of "the rule of law." These senators haven't been worried about enforcing the existing campaign finance laws during the past eight years, nor the existing gun laws. Rampant violations of both are instead used as ammunition in fighting for yet more laws. No, it's not the rule of law they are agonizing over; it's not law enforcement. It's using the law and our political institutions to selectively enforce the laws to which they are ideologically wedded. They certainly don't advocate vigorous enforcement of laws with which they disagree. Indeed, Attorney General Janet Reno, whom the Senate unanimously confirmed, virtually turned the Justice Department into a political rather than a law enforcement institution. The examples, from Waco to Elian to the latest alleged collusion with the IRS to thwart the Independent Counsel's investigation of another Clinton appointee, Henry Cisneros, are too numerous to detail in this column. Regardless, we mustn't dismiss out of hand their stated concern about the rule of law, which is a legitimate concern. The proper response from Ashcroft supporters is not that turnabout is fair play, that Republicans are now in power so they are entitled to selectively enforce and politically interpret the law. It is that they will put the interests of the law above the interests of their party. They will strive to make the office of the attorney general and the Department of Justice exemplars of that which it is their solemn duty to dispense: equal justice under the law. So senators -- including Democratic senators -- have every right, indeed a duty, to ensure that the nominees they confirm for attorney general, among other positions, will dispassionately enforce the law. Most Senate Republicans certainly agree, which is why they fiercely opposed Clinton's appointment of Bill Lann Lee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Lee was committed not to enforcing the law, as set out by the courts, but as he believed it ought to be. Sen. Hatch and others rejected Lee's nomination because they believed that he would use the power of his office to impose race-based employment preferences, even though the United States Supreme Court has all but outlawed them. Lee, during his illegal tenure in the position, has vindicated the senators' concerns. Senate Democrats, it should be noted, were unconcerned with Lee's unique approach to civil rights law enforcement -- which is to say his insistence, in some cases, on enforcing laws deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. But what about John Ashcroft? Are Democrats' anxieties about him legitimate? Emphatically not, if it is truly a commitment to the rule of law they seek. Ashcroft himself gave the clearest answer as to why he represents no threat to the rule of law. He testified that there was absolutely no way his principles could interfere with his willingness or duty to enforce the law, because enforcing the law was among his highest principles. That, my friends, is a quintessential affirmation of the rule of law. Ashcroft reveres the law itself. He deeply believes that we are a nation of laws, not men, meaning that the law is bigger than he is, that the Constitution and the rights it guarantees are more hallowed than his own personal opinions. What Senate Democrats most fear is that John Ashcroft will operate the way some of their appointees do -- subordinating the rule of law to his political ends -- only on the opposite ideological pole. If Ashcroft were so inclined, they would be justified in opposing him, notwithstanding their hypocrisy. But he isn't. So they should withdraw their objections and ratify President Bush's appointment of this honorable man.