John Ashcroft, A.G. A.G.


by John Tyler Connoley

July 20, 2004


Among my friends, I'm one of a handful of people who thought John Ashcroft might make a good Attorney General when he was first nominated. As Bush announced that this former Missouri Senator and Assemblies of God member would be his pick for Department of Justice head, my friends were panic-stricken. Particularly my liberal Christian and formerly-Christian friends were almost hysterical -- An A.G. A.G.! God, save us from your followers!


I tried to calm their fears. "Yes, he's a Pentecostal fundamentalist, but he's also a libertarian Republican," I pointed out. "He has a reputation for being anti-big government and pro-states' rights. That's just the sort of man I'd want in that position."


I think it's time to admit I was wrong.


Once he became Attorney General, John Ashcroft seems to have decided that even though we shouldn't normally trust the Federal Government, we can trust the government now that he's in charge. Once he had the power, his innate paternalism took center stage. So, I'm publicly admitting that having an A.G. A.G., however libertarian he might have seemed beforehand, has been an unmitigated disaster for states' rights and civil liberties.


One of the first things Ashcroft did after taking office was to spend $8,000 to drape the statue of Lady Justice in the DOJ pressroom. The neoclassical sculpture has an exposed breast, and Ashcroft's critics say he didn't want to be photographed in front of another boob. More likely, he wanted to protect Americans from seeing a metal breast during the six o'clock news. It was his first act of paternalism as Attorney General, but it wouldn't be his last.


Much has also been made of John Ashcroft's proposal on September 10, 2001 to cut the Justice Department's terrorism budget. However, I think it more troubling that less than one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when his priorities should have been on other things, John Ashcroft took the time to issue a directive stating his opinion that Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, passed by the legislature and approved by the voters, was illegal under federal law. In the directive, he announced his intention to prosecute physicians by using the Oregon law's requirement that doctors file a report with the Oregon Division of Health whenever they participate in a physician assisted suicide. He ordered his agents to use the legal reports as evidence in prosecutions.


Of course, the directive and the ensuing investigations resulted in a lawsuit challenging the A.G.'s right to undermine a state law. And, after hundreds of wasted hours and countless wasted dollars, a judge ruled against the Attorney General on April 17, 2002. In his scathing opinion, US District Judge Robert Jones stated that John Ashcroft had tried to "stifle an ongoing, earnest and profound debate in the various states concerning physician-assisted suicide." In other words, Ashcroft's pro-life beliefs trumped any interest he had in states' rights.


His pro-life beliefs trumped his interest in civil liberties earlier this year, when he subpoenaed the medical records of hospitals in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor. He was interested in the records of women who had undergone the procedure commonly known as partial birth abortion, because he wanted to prove that it is never medically necessary. Of course, the hospitals balked at the request, citing patients' right to privacy. And now the Department of Justice is spending time in court, to justify Ashcroft's actions yet again.


John Ashcroft also announced this spring that he would soon be spending vast amounts of national resources and DOJ time to rid the Internet of obscenity. The Justice Department has worked diligently for years to thwart child pornography, and that's commendable, but now the Attorney General is targeting the adult entertainment industry with a war on pornography. Realizing that obscenity cases, which require a jury to determine what constitutes obscene material, would be hard to win in Hollywood, Ashcroft decided to try a case against California executives in Pennsylvania by using laws against mailing obscene material. If the strategy succeeds, we can expect a landslide of obscenity cases against businesses that are currently legal in the states where they reside. It makes me wonder what happened to the Senator Ashcroft who once believed in states' rights.


But we're just beginning to learn the details of the most egregious expansion of federal powers instituted by the former senator. According to news reports, a fifty-page memo, written by lawyers from the Department of Justice and approved by Ashcroft in 2002, stated that a wartime President has the authority to override state and federal laws regarding torture, including the Geneva Convention treaties ratified by Congress. Ashcroft has so far refused to show the policy report to Congress, but if the allegations are true it would be big-government at its worst and most dangerous. No president should be above the law, and no threat is so dangerous that we should give the Executive Branch dictatorial power to combat it. Any true conservative would tell you that.


Five years ago, John Ashcroft might have said so himself. That's why I once trusted that this libertarian Republican, and Pentecostal fundamentalist might actually make a good Attorney General. Unfortunately, when given the power, our A.G. A.G. betrayed my trust. It turns out he thinks states' rights and civil liberties are dispensable. And he may even believe some people are above the law.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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