JANUARY 18, 2001—In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, John Ashcroft, Bush’s nominee to be attorney general, denied he opposed desegregation in the St. Louis schools. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. He has also said, “I don’t oppose desegregation” and “I am in favor of integration.” But according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in 1984 Ashcroft called the St. Louis desegregation plan an “outrage against human decency.” In his gubernatorial campaign that year, he widely advertised his fight against desegregation, claiming he had done “everything in his power legally” to fight the plan, and backed up that fact by telling reporters to just ask the judge “who threatened me with contempt.”
Having such a long and public record of his beliefs, Ashcroft is now being held accountable for the discrepancies between what he says and what he has done.
Ashcroft’s claim: “While I was (Missouri) attorney general, I inherited a desegregation lawsuit in St. Louis from my predecessor in office, Jack Danforth. . . . I argued on behalf of the state of Missouri that it could not be found legally liable for segregation in St. Louis schools because the state had never been party to the litigation.”
Fact: The state had been made party to the litigation while Ashcroft was attorney general, not Danforth. In response to an Ashcroft appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled: “The state of Missouri, the Missouri Commissioner of Education, and the Missouri Board of Education were added as defendants pursuant to various district court orders in the summer of 1977.” Ashcroft was Missouri attorney general at that time.
Ashcroft’s claim: In his committee testimony Ashcroft said, “The court sought to make the state responsible and liable for the payment of these very substantial sums of money and the state had not been found really guilty of anything.” He additionally said Missouri was “found guilty of no wrong.”
Fact: In March 1980 the Court of Appeals reversed a lower court, ruling that both the state and city were liable for segregation, and in a June 1980 finding of fact the district court said that “the state of Missouri, which prior to 1954 mandated school segregation, never took any effective steps to dismantle the dual system it had compelled by constitution, statutory law, practice, and policy.” After further legal analysis, the court declared, “The state defendants stand before the Court as primary constitutional wrongdoers who have abdicated their remedial duty. Their efforts to pass the buck among themselves and other state instrumentalities must be rejected.” When Ashcroft appealed this ruling, the appeals court affirmed the district court finding that the state defendants we re “primary constitutional wrongdoers.” Ashcroft then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take the case.
Ashcroft’s claim: While testifying about the St. Louis dispute, Ashcroft said, “In all of the cases where the court made an order, I followed the order, both as attorney general and as governor.”
Fact: One federal district court in March 1981 threatened to hold the state in contempt if it did not meet the latest desegregation deadline. The next year, Ashcroft was back in the Court of Appeals, arguing the district court could not order the state to help fund voluntary desegregation. The appeal was rejected, with the court repeating once more that the state defendants were “primary constitutional wrongdoers.”
With Ashcroft and other officials pressing on with challenges to the court rulings, the St. Louis Post Dispatch quoted the court in 1984 as saying, “If it were not for the state of Missouri and its feckless appeals, perhaps none of us would be here today.”
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