Lack of Diversity Decried; 19 Arrested
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 1998; Page A03
Nearly 1,000 civil rights activists marked the opening of the Supreme Court's new term yesterday with loud chants and an angry protest of what they complain are the minuscule number of minority law clerks hired each year by the court's justices.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume was among 19 people arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court after crossing police barricades in a symbolic attempt to deliver to the justices petitions and the resumes of minority clerk candidates.
Of the 34 law clerks hired to work in the current term, only one, a Hispanic, is a minority. And since 1972, less than 2 percent of the 428 clerks selected by the nine sitting justices have been black, about 4 percent have been Asian American, 1 percent have been Latino and none has been Native American, according to the NAACP. In addition, a little more than a quarter of the clerks hired by the sitting justices since 1972 have been women. The Supreme Court declined to comment on the accuracy of the statistics or yesterday's protest.
"This is not ambiguous," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who spoke at the rally. "This is clear [discrimination]. The numbers speak for themselves."
Several speakers at the rally called the court's small number of minority law clerks an outrage that undermines confidence in the Supreme Court's work. Moreover, they said, race matters if only because of the central role played by the high court in shaping the nation's racial policy. In recent years, for example, the court has voted to roll back affirmative action programs and outlaw minority voting districts.
"The fact that the nine justices who sit on the highest court in the land do not practice equal opportunity exposes a great deal of hypocrisy," Mfume said. "By not hiring more people of color, the Supreme Court is reducing opportunities and increasing the pain index for minorities."
Supreme Court clerks play a crucial role in shaping American law. They recommend which appeals should be heard, develop questions for justices to use at oral arguments and often write first drafts of opinions supporting the justices' positions on cases. Beyond their ability to influence the high court's work, clerks frequently continue on to command high salaries at private law firms or hold influential positions in government or as law professors.
More than 1,000 new lawyers apply for Supreme Court clerkships each year. Many of those chosen are Ivy League graduates who have previously clerked in a federal appeals court. According to a USA Today analysis, whose numbers the NAACP is touting, 40 percent of the clerks selected over the years by the justices currently on the court have gone to Harvard or Yale law schools.
Nancy Choy, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said the lack of racial diversity among Supreme Court clerks "results from a hiring process based on who you know." Pointing out that 18 percent of the nation's law school graduates are minorities, Choy said that having an overwhelmingly white cadre of Supreme Court clerks "undermines public trust in our judicial system."
Four justices Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter have never hired a black clerk, according to USA Today.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a 1994 appointee of President Clinton, has the best minority hiring record with 15 percent, including one black, one Latino and one Asian American among the 20 he has hired. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, has the second-best record, having employed 12 percent of his clerks from minority groups, including three Asians and one black among the 33 he has hired.
Earlier this year, leaders of several minority lawyer groups wrote Rehnquist seeking a meeting to discuss the issue. But Rehnquist declined, saying, "I have no control, nor would I seek to assert any control, over the hiring practices of my eight colleagues." He added: "I do not think the sort of meeting you propose in your letter would serve any useful purpose."
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