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Stop playing race card on judicial nominees

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WASHINGTON — If one believes President Clinton, Republican senators such as Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are racists who politically lynch the judicial nominations of blacks and Hispanics.

Clinton played that race card last week as George W. Bush stepped up efforts to reach out to blacks and Hispanics — groups that historically have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.

Bush even spoke to the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in essence attempting a raid into the heart of Democratic territory.

Clinton then took time off from Camp David peace talks to also visit the NAACP. He called for racial harmony but said the GOP destroys that by blocking judicial nominations of minorities. So he said minorities should support Al Gore for president.

Clinton said, "I don't want people denied their chance to serve because of their race or their politics. It's not right. Now you need to think about that, because it's an important part of the next four years."

An example of what Clinton said is a GOP "travesty of justice" is the Senate's rejection of Ronnie White, who is black, to be a federal judge in Missouri. The rejection came on a straight party-line vote last year.

Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for months has said that continuing assertions by Clinton that the rejection was racially motivated is a "transparently political accusation" without basis in fact.

Hatch has even said that "many of my Republican colleagues were unaware of Judge White's race" — because it didn't come up in debate and because Hatch's Judiciary Committee does not keep records on race or report it to others.

But Hatch says Republicans were aware of opposition to White by Missouri's two Republican senators because of his past stands against the death penalty. Hatch said that killed the nomination.

Hatch noted that 77 of 114 Missouri county sheriffs also opposed White — along with Missouri police chiefs — because he tried in many cases to overturn death sentences, including one for a man who killed a sheriff, two deputies and another sheriff's wife.

Of note, a vote on White was allowed in a deal to end blocks by both parties on nominees supported by the other. One of those blocked until then was Ted Stewart, who became a federal judge in Utah.

If Democrats can argue that White's nomination was blocked then killed by Republicans because he is black, Republicans could have used similar reasoning to conclude that Stewart had been blocked because he was a Mormon.

But they knew better. They knew Stewart was blocked because Hatch wanted him — and Democrats hoped that delaying a vote on him could help overcome GOP blocks on Democratic nominees.

Similarly, when Democrats fought the nomination of Republican Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Republicans could have accused them of racism because Thomas is black — if they used Clintonesque reasoning. They didn't. They recognized Thomas was opposed by liberals because he is conservative.

Of note, Clinton also seems not to mention conveniently that Republicans have voted to confirm many other blacks, Hispanics and women he's nominated whose politics and previous decisions were not controversial. Would true racists do that? Evidence most strongly suggests that minorities and women who have been blocked by Republicans suffered that because of GOP worries about their "judicial activism," "legislating from the bench" or "being soft on crime." Democrats could fairly criticize Republicans for that. But alleging unfairness for racial reasons is more powerful and more apt to keep minorities loyal to Democrats.

But it doesn't exactly help race relations, either.

Ironically, Clinton told the NAACP he attended its convention because it "embodies the spirit of freedom and reconciliation." True reconciliation will come only when leaders quit charging racism for political gain, especially when it likely isn't real.

Deseret News Washington correspondent Lee Davidson can be reached by e-mail at leed@dgs.dgsys.com