Lani Guinier will be silent no more

April 14, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Lani Guinier just wants to talk about it.

Yes, the woman most famous for the job she didn't get unwittingly keeps paraphrasing the advertising slogan made famous by local attorney Stephen L. Miles as she moves through her appearances yesterday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

In fact, she is so eager for dialogue that she misreads the sign instructing her to speak directly into the microphone for a question-and-answer session with honors students.

"It says, 'Please talk into mike,' " she notes. "I thought it said,

'Please talk to me.' "

Please talk to her and please allow her to speak back.

President Clinton denied her that privilege when he nominated her for the Justice Department's civil rights post in April 1993. She was instructed to keep quiet when news reports characterized her legal scholarship as radical.

Ultimately, she was allowed to make her case before a few senators and the audience of "Nightline." But her nomination was withdrawn within weeks by the president, so Ms. Guinier never had a chance to make her case in a Senate confirmation hearing.

"My own experience gave impetus to my interest in conversation, because I had been so brutally shut out. I was admonished: 'You must not speak.' It was searing," she concedes in a brief interview sandwiched between her campus appearances.

A tall, slender woman in a bright red suit, she has tamed her famously curly hair into a coiled braid. Her manner is easy and relaxed as she fields questions from students and faculty. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania's law school, Ms. Guinier, 45, was interested in conversation long before she came to the attention of the Clinton administration.

"Part of what we call political discourse is just poisoning," she says. "On talk shows, there's a premium on naming and blaming."

As someone once dubbed a "quota queen," Ms. Guinier is all too familiar with naming and blaming. But she also is unrepentant about the views that caused so much consternation two years ago.

She still favors the idea of cumulative voting, a system that has been used in Alabama and North Carolina. Voters are given a certain number of votes to distribute among a field of candidates; for example, they could give one vote to each person or all their votes to one person.

She still talks about the "tyranny of the majority" and questions what she calls the winner-take-all concept of government.

"The winner-take-all system exaggerates the power of the winner," she tells her audiences. "It creates enormous stakes in winning."

Opponents to her justice department appointment branded her a radical leftist for such beliefs, but Ms. Guinier insists her ideas are politically neutral.

She uses Democrat Tom Foley's loss in a tight 1994 election in his home state of Washington to illustrate her points about majority rule. But she could just as well point to Ellen Sauerbrey's narrow defeat in the governor's race here.

"People think I want to affect the outcome," she says. "I just want a fair process."

Recently, Ms. Guinier stirred up another controversy with a study at Penn showing that male students are more likely to be at the top of their law class than women with virtually identical credentials upon admission. One of her conclusions: The Socratic method used in law schools is a form of combat, and women must become "social males" to compete successfully.

Ms. Guinier is now working on a "think tank-talk tank" called Commonplace, through which she hopes to set up a nationally televised debate on race and gender.

She is still toying with the recipe for a perfect conversation. How many people should participate? Should they be encouraged to emphasize their differences, or work together on a common problem?

And what about recent reports that Harvard University's law school is trying to lure Ms. Guinier to its faculty?

"We're still talking," she says with a smile.

Of course, Ms. Guinier is always talking.

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