Ronnie White, then-chief justice-elect of the Missouri Supreme Court, talks with reporters in June 2003.
Ronnie White, then-chief justice-elect of the Missouri Supreme Court, talks with reporters in June 2003. Kelley McCall/AP
President Obama has made it a priority to choose federal judges who are diverse in terms of race or gender. But for the most part, he's avoided controversy for those lifetime appointments.
That's why the nomination of a Missouri lawyer named Ronnie White has raised the eyebrows of experts who've been around Washington for a while. Old hands remember that White was rejected for a federal judgeship back in 1999 after a party line vote by Senate Republicans.
Now, in what experts say could be an unprecedented step, he's getting another chance.
White has already made history, in more ways than one. The Democratic lawyer served three terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. He became the first African-American to sit on the state Supreme Court, sworn in at a courthouse where slaves were once sold on the steps. And 14 years ago, White suffered a rare defeat on the U.S. Senate floor in his bid to become a federal judge.
"We rarely ever see floor votes rejecting a nomination," says Sarah Binder, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That's what is so unusual and why I think almost everybody who's followed judicial nominations remembers the Ronnie White case."
Binder and other experts who study nominations say they can't remember a time when a judge who's been voted down in the Senate has been renominated.
"There may be a case way back when in the early 19th century but for all intents and purposes this is unprecedented for a president to come back and renominate someone," Binder adds.
White is unusual for another reason: He took the opportunity to defend himself and his record by testifying against his chief antagonist, former Missouri GOP Sen. John Ashcroft, during Ashcroft's own confirmation hearing to become attorney general in the George W. Bush years. White told the Senate back in early 2001 that he once thought he had a clear path to become a judge.
"And then I learned that Sen. Ashcroft was opposing me," White recalled. "I was very surprised to hear that he had gone to the Senate floor and called me 'pro-criminal,' with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity. That he told his colleagues that I was against prosecutors and the culture in terms of maintaining order."
White told lawmakers that Ashcroft had distorted his record: "I deeply resent those baseless misreputations. In fact, and I want to say this as clearly as I can, my record belies those accusations."
Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, followed up with Ashcroft himself.
"Sen. Ashcroft, did you treat Ronnie White fairly?" Durbin asked.
"I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the committee and as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White," Ashcroft replied.
Ashcroft said he was bothered by White's record in death penalty cases and that the judge went out of his way to support defendants' rights, even in violent crimes. Anger from minority groups in Missouri ultimately helped cost Ashcroft his Senate seat, but it didn't stop his bid to become U.S. attorney general.
And White — now 60 years old — may yet have a second act too.
A spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, told NPR the past criticism of the judge is "completely unfounded" and said she "looks forward to supporting his nomination."
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, told reporters he won't block White's bid for a Senate vote either.
Conservative groups who follow judicial candidates are digging through his record. Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network says given the recent change in Senate rules, she thinks White will get through this time.
"It's definitely clear that with the new 51-vote threshold it's going to be very difficult to stop his nomination," Severino says. "So I think they're hoping to get through now some of these more extreme nominees that before would have required a bipartisan consensus to move on."
The White House didn't respond to questions about why it renominated White for a federal judgeship. But White may have offered an answer, in his Senate testimony a dozen years ago.
"There was a lot of outrage about my nomination being rejected and particularly in the African-American community," White said. "And the reason for that outrage I believe, is when you have an African-American judge, African-Americans see that as one more step toward true equality."
For President Obama, who's made diversifying the bench a top priority, that may be reason enough to revisit the case of Ronnie White.