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.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


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.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.