Justices Defend Court's Hiring Practices
By Joan Biskupic
Testifying before a congressional committee for the first time since he joined the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas yesterday defended the hiring practices that have produced a dearth of female and minority law clerks at the nation's highest court.
"There is not a person at the court who would not want to change this," Thomas said. But the man who became only the second black justice in history and is a staunch critic of affirmative action added, "At this level you just can't take chances."
Thomas said the justices seek to hire people who held clerkships at lower federal courts and excelled at top law schools which traditionally are bastions of white men.
Appearing with him, Justice David H. Souter said the justices effectively "rely on the law schools and other courts to make the cut for us." He said he tells aides who help him screen applicants, "Get me the cream."
Souter and Thomas, who were appointed in 1990 and 1991, respectively, by President George Bush, spoke before a House Appropriations subcommittee as part of the court's annual presentation of its budget request. Among the highlights were a request for more money in fiscal 2000 for security, arising in part from concerns related to last year's shooting at the Capitol, and a recommendation for a five-year, $120 million renovation of the 1935 white marble building.
But as has become the tradition, subcommittee members used the rare off-the-bench occasion to ask the justices for their views on issues beyond the budget.
Two Democratic members, Reps. Julian C. Dixon (Calif.) and Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), homed in on the justices' lack of minority and female clerks, declaring that it was an issue House members would likely raise on the floor as they considered court-related appropriations and legislation.
Shouldn't the court's staff "look more like America?" asked Serrano, who is Hispanic. Serrano and Dixon, an African American, both mentioned their minority backgrounds and quests for equality.
Each of the nine justices personally selects four clerks each term to assist in screening appeals, preparing for oral arguments and writing opinions. These highly coveted jobs usually go to the best students who graduate from the very top law schools and have already clerked at lower federal courts.
Over the years, people inside and outside the court system have complained about the overwhelming number of white men in these influential positions. But in the past year, the NAACP has made a greater issue of it, holding a protest at the court and calling attention to reports in USA Today that focus on the demographics of clerks.
Yesterday the justices essentially said they are not happy with the lopsided numbers either but that they are not going to take risks on applicants who have not had experience in clerkships or been tested in tough academic situations. And they said pressure should be put on law schools to help women and minorities get on tracks that lead to the high court.
Thomas acknowledged that some worthy candidates at less prestigious schools may be ignored. But he emphasized that the justices do not themselves seek out candidates. They review those who have applied and tend to focus on those who are recommended by professors and judges they trust.
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