JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri judge who testified against U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft during his Senate confirmation hearings is now poised to become the first black chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Ronnie L. White, 50, who takes over as head of the seven-member court on Tuesday, says his top priority will be to encourage diversity within Missouri's court system.
"I truly believe that within the judicial department, we need to work a little bit harder to try and place people of color within our organization," White said. "It's not a big deal that Ronnie White is the chief justice, it's that a person of color can become chief."
White, who grew up in a segregated part of St. Louis, became the first black member of the state Supreme Court in 1995.
He was twice nominated by former President Clinton to serve on the federal bench. But Ashcroft -- then a Republican senator from Missouri -- led a Senate fight against White that ended in 1999 with the defeat of his nomination.
Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor, contended that White was soft on the death penalty.
Two years later, White testified before the Senate as it considered whether to confirm Ashcroft as attorney general, saying Ashcroft "seriously distorted [his] record" and adding: "The question for the Senate is whether these misrepresentations are consistent with the fair play and justice you all would require of the U.S. attorney general."
"I don't dwell on the past," White said recently when asked about that conflict with Ashcroft. "If you hold in that frustration and hostility, you can't be productive."
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where the chief justice is appointed by the president and serves indefinitely, the job of chief justice in Missouri rotates every two years by seniority. White officially was elected to the top position by colleagues last month.
White remembers when the civil rights movement hit its stride, and his father's promise that things would be different for blacks. It's one of the reasons he became a lawyer.
"I couldn't believe how the law could hold back a whole race of people," he said.
His father was a postal worker and his mother was a housekeeper. White swept floors, waited tables and briefly worked as a postal worker to put himself through school.
He was one of only three blacks in his graduating class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
Outgoing Chief Justice Stephen Limbaugh Jr., an Ashcroft appointee, said White's background benefits the court.
"I think the most important contribution he makes to the court is that he brings so many perspectives from his life experiences," said Limbaugh, a cousin of conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Although White and Limbaugh sometimes disagree on legal cases, they consider themselves friends.
"He's low-key, but he is as friendly a fella as you'll meet," Limbaugh said.