Since the execution of Timothy McVeigh and preceding the scheduled execution of another condemned federal prisoner today, Attorney General John Ashcroft says he has no doubts about the efficacy of the death penalty or the guilt of those sentenced to receive it.
In a wide-ranging interview in his Justice Department office, Ashcroft said, "I think we are signaling there are things which are so intolerable that we will extract the highest penalty. I know of no reason to discontinue the death penalty. It is the policy of the United States Congress."
Asked about those who oppose the death penalty under all circumstances, yet favor no restrictions on abortion, Ashcroft said, "I believe there is a difference between innocent life and the predicate upon which a person's life is ended in capital punishment. ... We respect life so profoundly that we say to individuals who take life that you will suffer the loss of your own. ... There's an irony in individuals who favor taking innocent life and protecting guilty life."
The attorney general sidestepped a question about whether investigations continue into alleged wrongdoing by the previous administration, saying only that such investigations are "ongoing. The legal business does not have a timetable that is consistent with elective politics." Maybe not in this administration, but it surely had such a timetable in the previous one.
What does Ashcroft think about comments by a majority on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that blacks were denied their right to vote in the election last November?
"We have a number of ongoing investigations in Florida," he said. "I acknowledge their existence because I think it is important. I'm concerned about barriers to voting, but I'm also concerned about the contamination of the voting process, including vote manipulation and fraud, illegal activities regarding voter registration (and people who voted) multiple times."
And well he might be concerned. The commission cited lots of anecdotal evidence but could not come up with specifics about how anyone was denied their right to vote based on race. Yet, there was plenty of evidence available of felons voting illegally and people who voted in Florida and St. Louis who were dead, or otherwise ineligible to vote, or who voted more than once.
When will a new FBI director be named to replace Louis Freeh?
"I hope it will be very soon," Ashcroft said. He acknowledges that the agency needs an overhaul. Ashcroft says a computer expert is updating the agency's record keeping.
What about statements by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, that conservative judicial nominees will have a tough time winning confirmation?
"I expect the Congress to fairly evaluate and accept nominees with views consistent with this president. Those are the kinds of people we will send to the Senate and ask for the responsible exercise of their duty under the Constitution."
That's a diplomatic answer, but it won't happen. Leahy and his fellow liberals know that having federal judges, especially Supreme Court justices, who read and interpret the Constitution as written, would mean that the days of legislating from the bench would be over. Neither does it do any good to say, as Ashcroft did, that because a Republican Senate confirmed most of President Clinton's judicial nominees that means liberal senators will reciprocate out of a sense of fair play.
The trick for the administration when vacancies occur on the high court will be to send up someone without much of a record, risking a David Souter, Anthony Kennedy or even a Sandra Day O'Connor, who consistently vote in favor of the abortion status quo. Alternatively, they can select judges all known to be conservatives and keep sending them in waves until one or more slips through when opinion polls show the public sees the Democrats as obstructionists. I prefer the second strategy, but will the president have the fortitude to do that? He might. He stood up to the Europeans.
Faith always comes up when talking with perhaps the most openly religious high government official since Jimmy Carter. I asked him whether in light of his strong views on so many things Ashcroft is frustrated by the Constitution and what some judges believe it says.
"I don't see the Constitution as a frustration," he tells me. "I see the Constitution as the enshrinement of a set of protections that allows me to operate in the freedom that is superior to any other environment I know of. My beliefs compel me to honor and respect the law. I take that as an article of political and personal faith."
Good answer. Now if only more judges who agree with Ashcroft can be found.
Cal Thomas can be reached through Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave, Suite 1500, Chicago, Ill. 60611.
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