JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The nation’s judicial branch needs to continue protecting liberty if the United States is going to maintain what makes its democracy special, a former U.S. attorney general said during a visit Monday.

John Ashcroft, who served as attorney general during George W. Bush’s first term as president, was in Johnson City to speak to East Tennessee State University’s pre-law society.

“Democracy is a process for making decisions, liberty is an outcome,” Ashcroft told News Channel 11. “We want to live in liberty safeguarded by our Constitution, so that democracy is limited to making good decisions but can’t infringe the rights, privacy and integrity of the American public.” 

Ashcroft, a Republican who served two terms as Missouri’s governor and was also a U.S. senator representing that state, spent some of his address at a Carnegie Hotel banquet on what he described as excesses in the country’s use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA authorizes surveillance of people based on national security concerns, but came under scrutiny several years ago related to surveillance of people related to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke at Johnson City, Tenn.’s Carnegie Hotel April 24. (WJHL photo)

An inspector general’s report found multiple errors in applications for surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign team member.

“I think there are some revisions to be made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would provide a basis for safeguarding the process, making sure we have better integrity in the process, protecting the civil liberty and privacy of the American citizens,” Ashcroft said.

He said regardless of which political party is in power, the country’s basis in liberty can be undermined when decisions that should be based in law and policy get politicized.

“We know that the FISA Court was urged to issue warrants or orders for FISA surveillance based on information that had been generated by political institutions and political parties,” Ashcroft said. “I think it might be time for us to make sure we have some check on that.”

He didn’t offer specific examples when asked, saying he “didn’t want to be political here, I want to be structural.”

Beyond the FISA issue, when asked about public trust in the judiciary Ashcroft suggested the courts were not the problem. Gallup polling has shown a steady decline in the public’s “job approval” rating for the Supreme Court to an all-time low of 47% in 2022.

He called the Constitution the “core safeguard” of the U.S.’s political process and said it sometimes “rescues us from decisions that we might make with an overwhelming majority, but decisions that would not safeguard the liberty of America,” he said. The Constitution is designed to make sure that even an aggressive democracy does not infringe the liberties of the American people.”

That extends to a rising number of calls to “cancel” or suppress the expression of views people on one side of an ideological or cultural divide might deem damaging enough to silence.

The Constitution “protects the people I’m working with and sometimes the people I’m working against, but it’s uniform,” Ashcroft said. He said protecting the Constitution is key to maintaining liberty, which he called a key to America’s success as a society.

“I used to think when I was a boy that America is great because we were better than other people. Americans aren’t better than other people. We are other people. The difference that America has is that we are people who live in liberty, so that creativity, productivity, industry and prosperity can flourish.

“That’s based on an equal opportunity for people and the idea that we award benefit to people who can be the most valuable to our culture.”