With A Rules Change For A Lever, Senate Ends Judge's 17-Year Wait

The Senate has voted 53 to 44 to confirm Ronnie White for a federal court judgeship in Missouri, 17 years after he was first nominated by President Bill Clinton.

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A Missouri lawyer won Senate confirmation today as a federal judge. That came 17 years after he was first nominated to the bench by President Bill Clinton. Ronnie White's nomination in the 1990s triggered a fight between civil rights groups and some police groups. But as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, a change in Senate rules helped him advance this time.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Ronnie White's a prominent lawyer in St. Louis and a three-term member of the Missouri House of Representatives. He was the first African-American on the state Supreme Court, taking his oath on courthouse steps where slave auctions had once been held. But in 1999, the U.S. Senate voted to deny him a federal judgeship after John Ashcroft, then a Republican senator from Missouri, said White was soft on the death penalty and drug crimes. That argument echoed again today on the Senate floor where Iowa Republican Charles Grassley listed criminal cases in which Judge White sided with defendants.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: And from the careful look that I've taken at Justice White's 13-year track record as a judge, I just have too many questions about his ability to keep his personal considerations separate from his judicial opinions.

CONGRESSMAN CLAIRE MCCASKILL: The record, as it stands today, flies in the face of that assertion.

JOHNSON: Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill cried foul. McCaskill said as a state judge, Ronnie White voted to uphold the death penalty almost 70 percent of the time. Then she urged the Senate to correct itself.

MCCASKILL: It's not often that the Senate has a chance to go back and fix a grievous error.

JOHNSON: After his 1999 Senate defeat, White moved up to Chief Justice on the Missouri Supreme Court. He retired to private practice in 2007. But civil rights groups never gave up on his bid to become a federal judge. In this time around, the Fraternal Order of Police supported his nomination, too. Again, Claire McCaskill.

MCCASKILL: I think Ronnie White handled what happened to him with as much character as could possibly be acquired of any individual. And I look forward today to finally righting the wrong and allowing Ronnie White his well-deserved place on the federal bench.

JOHNSON: Shortly after those remarks, the Senate voted 53 to 44 to confirm. Thanks to a rules change last year, Democrats are able to overcome a filibuster threat by a simple majority vote. Ronnie White, now 61 years old, will have lifetime tenure as a judge. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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