A television commentator and syndicated...


January 04, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

JEFF GREENFIELD, a television commentator and syndicated newspaper columnist, has written an open letter to Bill Clinton asking him to nominate him to the Supreme Court.

He says his principal credential is, "I am not a lawyer." Good credential, but forget it, bub. I've been pushing the idea for years that the Supreme Court should have a non-lawyer on it. I think a journalist would be a good addition to the court, too.

But not Greenfield. Why? Because he went to law school. I want someone on the court who has no ties to the legal profession. My choice would be Lyle Denniston of The Sun. He never went to law school. He's covered the Supreme Court for 34 years. He's read more Supreme Court opinions than any lawyer.

No law says you have to be a lawyer to sit on the Supreme Court. It's just tradition. George Washington named all lawyers. Every president since has followed that lamentable precedent.

In recent years things have gotten worse. Seven of the eight associate justices of today's Supreme Court were already judges when they were nominated for their present posts. And Chief Justice William Rehnquist had been an associate justice 15 years when he was elevated to chief. So eight of the nine present members of the court were nominated on the basis of previous judicial experience. Only Byron White was never a judge.

I find this lamentable because for a body that sits together and decides all its cases together, this is a remarkably homogenized bunch. After all, other people, such as journalists, politicians, academics, industrialists, physicians, bureaucrats -- pick your own favorite calling -- have informed views about law and the Constitution.

They would provide great value to the court by bringing to the weekly conferences at which cases are debated a different perspective to the issues of the day than that taught in law schools or learned on lower benches. They could hire clerks to dot the tees and cross the eyes in their opinions.

This overload of judges is a relatively new phenomenon. When the last justice who was not a law school graduate, Stanley Reed, resigned in 1957, only two of the then justices had came to the court from lower judgeships. Reed was replaced by a federal appellate judge and the trend accelerated to what we have now.

A few ex-judges is okay. Some sometimes fool you and break out of their law school-bench experience mold. For example, one of my favorite opinions to read is Roe vs. Wade, the abortion decision.

It is a wonderful essay about life, death, privacy, women, law and the constitution. It was written by Harry Blackmun, a former federal appellate judge. It doesn't read like a lawyer's opinion, and indeed most lawyers seem to think that whatever its merits as literature, it's lousy law.

I say, more literature, less law, then. And the best way to get that is fewer lawyer-judges.

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