Ashcroft, John David

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Ashcroft, John David

In 25 years, John Ashcroft ascended from assistant state attorney general for the state of Missouri to U.S. attorney general. The political road to the Justice Department was paved by this conservative right-wing Republican with his hard work and strong ethics.

John David Ashcroft was born on May 9, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. His family moved to rural Springfield, Missouri, when he was just a young boy. Springfield is the home of the Pentecostal Assembly of God Church, and since Ashcroft's father and grandfather were Pentecostal ministers, it seemed only natural that the family would make Springfield their home. While the church forbids smoking, drinking, and dancing, it does promote gospel singing. Ashcroft took up playing the guitar and singing gospel when he was young, and it was a passion of his ever after.

After high school, Ashcroft headed east to Yale where he received a degree in history in 1964. He then returned to the Midwest and studied at the University of Chicago Law School. There he met his later wife, Janet. They both graduated from the University of Chicago in 1967 and went on to teach business law at Southwest Missouri State University.

In 1972 Ashcroft decided to run for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. While he lost the race, he still found his way into politics when he was named assistant attorney general for the state of Missouri in 1975 under then-attorney general, John Danforth. While working there, Ashcroft met future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In 1976 Danforth decided to run for the U.S. Senate, giving Ashcroft the opportunity to campaign for the soon-to-be vacated state attorney general position. Ashcroft won the election and, in this new role, established his conservative reputation when he vehemently opposed court-ordered School Desegregation in St. Louis and Kansas City. While he could not please everybody, he managed to please many, and he was elected for another term, before then becoming the 50th governor of Missouri in 1984.

Ashcroft accomplished a great deal for the state of Missouri. He balanced budgets without increasing taxes. He also focused on Welfare reform and education by imposing tougher testing requirements for student advancement. As a validation of these efforts, Ashcroft was reelected to a second term as governor with an impressive 65 percent of the vote. State law did not allow him to run for a third term.

"Our [anti-terrorist] efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights, while saving American lives."
—John Ashcroft

In 1994 Ashcroft again followed in the footsteps of John Danforth, who was retiring from the Senate. Ashcroft was elected to the U.S. Senate and sworn in at the beginning of 1995. While in Congress, Ashcroft proposed and supported very conservative legislation, most of which did not become law. He was pro-life, against Gun Control, and against Affirmative Action. He sponsored the Human Life Amendment, which defined life to begin at conception and banned all abortions, including those involving Incest or rape, except when needed to save the life of the mother. The legislation did not become law. He was also unsuccessful in his support for term limits for congressmen and prayer in schools. Ashcroft was, however, successful with his Charitable Choice provision, a component of the welfare reform legislation in 1996. The provision granted funding to religious organizations in order to provide social welfare programs.

In 1998 Ashcroft published a book, Lessons from a Father to His Son, about his father's preachings, his Christian faith, and how it influenced his life. Also in 1998 the Ronnie White confirmation hearings branded him by some as a racist. White was the first African American Missouri Supreme Court Justice. Then-president bill clinton nominated him to the federal bench. During White's confirmation hearings, Ashcroft focused on a dissent that White made in a Capital Punishment case and argued that White was soft on crime. Yet, White had actually voted to uphold the death penalty in 41 of the 59 cases that he heard on the bench, and some argued that Ashcroft attacked White because of his race. Ultimately, the Senate voted down White, making him the first federal judicial nominee to be defeated since robert bork. That same year, Ashcroft seriously considered running for the Republican Party nomination for U.S. president. After a short-lived campaign, however, he withdrew his name and supported george w. bush.

In 2000 Ashcroft ran once again for his Senate position, this time against Missouri governor mel carnahan. Carnahan died with his son in a plane crash three weeks before the election but still won the vote by a slim margin. Ashcroft was a gracious loser, and Carnahan's widow was appointed to replace her deceased husband in the Senate.

In 2001 Ashcroft was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by Congress for the position of U.S. attorney general, one of the most powerful positions in the country. As attorney general, Ashcroft became head of the Justice Department and would oversee many powerful segments of the federal government, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the u.s. marshals.

The September 11th Attacks in 2001 caused an enormous change in the way Americans viewed the responsibilities of the nation's top law enforcement officials. In the aftermath of the attacks, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act and the usa patriot act, legislation that gave the Justice Department unprecedented latitude in dealing with suspected terrorists. In 2002 and early 2003, Ashcroft has issued numerous regulations dealing with the issue of domestic security and the tracking of foreign nationals including orders that give FBI agents and U.S. marshals permission to arrest such persons for immigration violations when there is not sufficient evidence to hold them on criminal charges. The Justice Department has stepped-up surveillance methods including the issuance of "national security letters" that mandate businesses to turn over electronic records of finances and other information. Ashcroft has also signed more than 170 classified "emergency foreign intelligence warrants" which allow 72 hours of wiretaps and searches of persons viewed as national security threats before they need to be reviewed and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Groups representing Muslim immigrants, numerous civil liberties advocates, religious groups, and others have protested much of the DOJ activity. One program that did not pass muster with Congress was the Terrorism Information and Prevention System to be known by its acronym as "Operation TIPS." The program was planned to train millions of American workers including truck drivers, mail carriers, train conductors, and employees of utilities to look for and report any suspicious material or activity to a new FBI database.

Other Ashcroft initiatives that have provoked controversy include the DOJ's challenge to an Oregon law that permits physician-assisted suicide and a California law that permits the possession of marijuana for medicinal use. In addition, Ashcroft filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of ending the University of Michigan's affirmative action admission program. Ashcroft has continued to advocate protection for the rights of gun owners while pressing for more severe punishments of those who commit capital crimes using guns or other weapons. Despite recent state moratoriums on capital punishment, exonerations of death row defendants in over 100 cases, and recent Supreme Court decisions which banned execution of mentally retarded inmates and which overturned cases where judges rather than juries had imposed the death penalty, Attorney General Ashcroft has overruled U.S. attorneys who had decided not to seek the death penalty, and he has approved death penalty prosecutions in nearly half of all federal cases where capital punishment might be applicable.

Further readings

Annual Accountability Report. 2002. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice.

Branch-Brioso, Karen. 2003. "Ashcroft Reports Progress against Terrorism with Ridge and Mueller, He Tells Congress of Arrests, Better Information Sharing." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (March 5).

Cloud, John. 2001. "General on the March: John Ashcroft Wants to Mobilize the Justice Department to Fight Terror. Is He Going Too Far?" Time (November 19).

Fechter, Michael. 2002. "Ashcroft Defends New Wiretap Powers." The Tampa Tribune (November 21).

References in periodicals archive ?
The other members, as provided by the White House are: Commission Chair John David Ashcroft, governor of Missouri; David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York; Alphonso Jackson, executive director of the Dallas Housing Authority; Irene Johnson, president of the LeClaire Courts Resident Management Corporation in Chicago; Josephine Velazquez, a children's advocate in Miami, Fla.