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  • Supreme Court Special Report

  •   Rehnquist Denies Bias in Hiring of Law Clerks

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 8, 1998; Page A03

    Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist told three black members of Congress the justices have not discriminated in the hiring of law clerks.

    But in an unusual letter defending the Supreme Court, the chief also acknowledged the low number of blacks and Hispanics chosen for the prestigious positions and said, "We select as clerks those who have very strong academic backgrounds and have had previously successful law clerk experience, most often in the federal courts. As the demographic makeup of this pool changes, it seems entirely likely that the underrepresentation of minorities . . . will also change."

    Rehnquist also rejected a request by the three House members – Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) – to talk to minority bar groups about the selection process.

    "I was shocked and disappointed, to say the least," Davis said of the letter, which was written Nov. 17 but made public by the court yesterday. "I had hoped that it would have suggested some corrective action." Davis said he did not accept Rehnquist's suggestion that minorities are underrepresented in the pool of qualified clerk candidates. "I'm sure there are lots of minorities with excellent credentials," he said.

    For months, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Bar Association and other minority rights groups have been pressuring the justices to do something about the low number of blacks and Hispanics who become law clerks. Nearly 1,000 civil rights activists protested at the court's opening day in October, and the NAACP in recent weeks has been asking its members to write letters of protest to the high court.

    Clerks are in a position to recommend which appeals should be heard at the high court and usually write first drafts of opinions supporting the justices' votes in a case.

    In mid-October, the three House members asked the justices to open "a dialogue with minority bar associations regarding the hiring process." They said that although minorities constitute 20 percent of law school graduates, in the past five years 7 percent of the court's clerks have been racial minorities.

    Writing on behalf of the nine justices, Rehnquist said, "Each of us is satisfied that no person is excluded from consideration for a clerkship because of race, religion, gender, nationality, or for any other impermissible reason."

    Rehnquist noted that because each justice decides who to hire, it would be "inappropriate for the court as an institution to play a role in the selection of law clerks by individual justices. The same interest in preserving the independence and impartiality of the judicial process also makes it inappropriate for any justice, in performing official duties, to seek guidance from special constituencies."

    Rehnquist sent a copy of his letter to NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who has made a similar request to meet with the justices. Yesterday Mfume said, "I am still disappointed that there does not seem to be a strong willingness on part of the chief justice to find a way to . . . meet to figure out what's going on. . . . I don't think that the justices feel that it is their job to broaden the pool. And as long as the pool is small and homogeneous, minorities will not be on the chart at all."

    © 1998 The Washington Post Company

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