Updated Thursday, July 17 to include a statement from Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka).
Seventeen years after his first nomination, former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White has been approved for a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of Missouri.
The U.S. Senate voted 53-44 to confirm his appointment Wednesday.
It was a long journey that began in 1997 when President Bill Clinton nominated White for a seat on the Eastern District Court of Missouri. At the time he was the first African-American judge on the Missouri Supreme Court.
The nomination was seen as a remarkable achievement for a man who, as described in testimony before Congress in 2001, had worked as a janitor and a newspaper salesman during his youth to make ends meet.
In 1999, though, then-U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., blocked White’s nomination because of White's decisions in some death penalty cases. Speaking on the Senate floor, Ashcroft said that a federal judgeship would give White a platform to “push the law in a pro-criminal direction.”
For some, the opposition to White remains as strong as ever. Missouri Speaker of of the House Tim Jones (R-Eureka) issued a statement Wednesday saying that White's Senate confirmation was "disturbing and an outrage."
In 1998, White was the lone dissenter in Missouri vs Johnson, a death penalty appeals case before the Missouri Supreme Court. One of the defendant's victims was Jones' aunt.
"Overall, (White) voted to overturn or grant a new trial in more than 30 percent of the death penalty cases he heard on the Supreme Court. This is not the kind of record we need on the court for the Eastern District of Missouri," wrote Jones in his statement.
Speaking before the Senate prior to the vote, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, said White’s record on the death penalty tells a different story. She said that prior to his first nomination he had a record of upholding the death penalty 70 percent of the time and voting with the majority in death penalty cases 90 percent of the time.
“Ronnie White handled what happened to him with as much character as could possibly be required of any individual,” said McCaskill. “And I look forward today to finally righting the wrong and allowing Ronnie White his well-deserved place on the federal bench.”
White has been working in private practice in St. Louis since he retired from the Missouri Supreme Court in 2007. He served as Missouri’s Chief Justice from 2003 to 2005.
To listen to McCaskill’s entire speech, go to her Youtube channel.