The Next Debo Adegbile?

by Jonathan Keim

Politico is reporting that Democrats are engaged in an internal debate over whether to abandon the blue-slip practice for judicial nominees: 

Pressure is continuing to mount in President Barack Obama’s base — and within his own White House — to push for a new nuclear option for judicial nominees. . . . White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler and others in the administration are currently caught between their own exasperation and their wariness about a direct challenge to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — the one and only man who could peel away the next layer of Senate control over nominations.

One of the nominees mentioned in the story is Ronnie L. White, the former Missouri Supreme Court judge whose first nomination to the federal bench was rejected in 1999 amid controversy over his record in criminal cases. President Obama nominated him for the federal bench last November. 

It’s hard to imagine that vulnerable Democratic senators would be excited about a floor vote on White’s nomination. Just a few weeks ago, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile for a high-ranking position at the Department of Justice after law enforcement and victim groups brought attention to his prior work on behalf of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

If Adegbile’s background gave Democratic senators heartburn, then Ronnie White’s judicial record will induce outright panic.  

When Ronnie L. White served on the Missouri Supreme Court, he was a death penalty skeptic, consistently finding procedural reasons to overturn death sentences. For instance, in two cases, Judge White accused trial court judges of racism. In the first case, where the defendant brutally beat his wife to death with a pipe while her son slept upstairs, Judge White claimed that the judge had been biased even though he could point to no “obviously unfair” ruling at trial. In the second case, Judge White wrote a majority opinion accusing the judge of racism because he had used racially neutral language to describe a juror. Judge White also joined several dissents arguing that death sentences should be overturned. One of these dissents argued that the Missouri Supreme Court’s job in death penalty cases was to conduct its own independent review and evaluation of the evidence, ignore the jury’s verdict, and effectively act as “super juror.”  

In another death penalty case involving a quadruple-first-degree murder spree, Judge White wanted to overturn the verdict because the defendant’s lawyer did not interview two government witnesses who partially rebutted the defendant’s insanity defense. After Deputy Sheriff Les Roark of the Moniteau County Sheriff’s Department responded to a domestic disturbance call at the defendant’s residence, the defendant shot Deputy Roark twice with a .38 caliber pistol. When the defendant heard Deputy Roark moaning in pain, he fired again, this time shooting him in the forehead. The defendant then drove to the house of Sheriff Kenny Jones, where he opened fire at the Christmas party inside. He shot Sheriff Jones’s wife five times, including twice in the head. She died.

The defendant then went to the home of Deputy Sheriff Russell Borts, whom he shot four times through a window. (Borts survived.) Next, the defendant drove to the Sheriff’s office building, where law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions had gathered. As they exited the building to respond to Borts’s shooting, the defendant opened fire, shooting and killing Cooper County Sheriff Charles Smith with shots to the head, face, right side, and upper back. The defendant also gunned down Miller County Deputy Sandra Wilson, who had just arrived and was exiting her car, with a single shot to the heart. In the terse verbiage of the majority opinion, “Deputy Wilson died on the pavement.” The defendant escaped and, after taking an elderly woman hostage for most of the next day, surrendered. 

Calling this a “hard case,” Judge White wanted to overturn the verdict based on his judgment that the defendant’s attorney unprofessionally failed to interview two state police officers. The defense claimed that the defendant was insane due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the Vietnam War, arguing (based in part on a deposition of the defendant’s wife) that during an episode, the defendant set up a tin-can-and-rope alarm system because he believed that he was “fighting in a free-fire zone.” The prosecution rebutted this claim after opening statement (a highway patrolman had set up the alarm) and used it to attack the defense’s credibility in closing. Judge White voted to reverse even though he was “not necessarily convinced that the weakness of the case was not the ‘most likely’ reason the defense failed,” that is, he believed that the most likely reason for the conviction was the weakness of the defense case. The defendant had confessed to the shootings, repeatedly describing his victims as law enforcement officers (not Viet Cong) and blaming his motivations on disagreements with the Sheriff’s Office.

When Judge White’s nomination was put to a vote, the Senate rejected his nomination on the merits, 45–54. It seems doubtful that senators who just voted against Adegbile’s nomination earlier this month would then vote for White, whose record would be more troubling to victims and law enforcement groups.

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