Son expounds equality, and I nearly wreck car


March 23, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

We're in the car, my son and I, and the radio is on. This is Friday. The guy on the radio is talking about the announcement that Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White will retire at the end of the current session.

The guy on the radio notes that when the conservative justice steps down, President Clinton will have the opportunity to make his first appointment to the nation's highest court.

"I wonder who the president will appoint?" says my 12-year-old son.

We often chat about the news or sports or ancient history, as we motor along. Anything, so long as it isn't about the birds and the bees.

"I don't know," I answer. "I hope, though, that he appoints either a black or a woman."

My son mulls this over for a few seconds. "That doesn't sound fair," he says at last.

"Why not?"

"Well," he says, "why should somebody get the job just because they are black or a woman? That isn't fair to white men."

Now, those of you who know me will be relieved to learn that the shock of such a sentiment coming from my own flesh and blood did not cause me to lose control of the car and crash -- though it was a close call.

I did feel a sudden wave of dizziness and I may have blacked out for several seconds. (Parents, let this be a warning to you: It is very important that you monitor your children carefully. No telling what ideas they may pick up from playmates.)

"I disagree," I reply in a remarkably calm and steady voice. It was a fatherly voice, stern but loving. "In the whole 200-year history of the Supreme Court, there have only been three justices who were not white men. So what the president would be doing would be opening opportunities to people of other races and sexes, not closing them to white men. For that matter, I would be just as happy if he chose an Asian or Hispanic."

"But suppose there was a white man who was the most qualified?" argues my son. "It wouldn't be fair if the president chose someone else just because the most qualified person was a white male." (His persistence on this issue is a giveaway that he's been talking to someone. Later, I plan to grill him on the identity of this bad influence.)

But, for now, I remain patient.

"OK, let's say that presidents in the past have looked for certain qualities in a justice: someone who was a constitutional scholar, with experience on the bench; someone who can write clear and compelling legal opinions, things like that. What I am saying is that because of the history of the court, there is a need to add diversity to the list of qualities. Someone who can bring new experiences and perspectives. People who say this is unfair to white men are really saying that diversity is not as important a qualification as scholarship or experience. And I'm saying it is."

"Well, isn't their job to interpret the Constitution? Why should it matter what race they are or whether they are a man or a woman?" persists my son.

I press on: "I think part of a justice's job is to try to figure out what the framers of the Constitution said, interpret what they intended, and then figure out how things like the Bill of Rights can be fairly applied to today's issues. To do that, they have to bring the full weight of their knowledge and experiences to bear. And the country is not well served if the knowledge and experiences of the people on the court is not as broad and deep as we can possibly make it.

"For that matter, I'll add something else to the list of qualifications," I continue, raising my voice. "No matter who the next justice is, it is important that the president choose someone of compassion and understanding -- so that even if they are confronted with issues outside of their personal experiences, they are able and willing to learn."

"OK," says my son.

"OK? Does that mean you agree with me?"

"Yeah," he says, "I agree."

We drive along in silence.

After a while, I clear my voice. "Now, are you saying you agree because you really do, or were you just trying to shut me up?"

"Well," says the precocious little brat, "actually, I do agree with you, now. But I also wanted to shut you up."

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