Activists denounce lack of minority law clerks Protesters to demonstrate outside Supreme Court today as term opens

October 05, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opens its new term today, upholding an old tradition.

Of the 34 law clerks who will work alongside the justices to research legal precedents and draft legal arguments, only one this term will be a racial minority, a Latina.

For the second consecutive year, no blacks are among the prestigious few hired to help the nine justices decide and draft opinions on legal cases such as affirmative action and other racially sensitive issues.

Outraged by this historic domination of the clerk positions by whites, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and civil rights activists are rallying supporters for a protest in front of the Supreme Court when it opens, as usual, the first Monday in October.

"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," said NAACP President and Chief Executive Kweisi Mfume. "By not hiring more people of color, the Supreme Court is reducing opportunities and increasing the pain index for minorities."

The activists admit that they do not realistically expect the justices to heed their pleas. Instead, their goal is to focus public attention on what Mfume calls the high court's "shameful record in hiring minority clerks."

Since 1972, less than 2 percent of the 428 clerks selected by the current nine justices have been black, about 4 percent have been Asian American, 1 percent have been Latino and none have been American Indian, according to a three-month research project by USA Today. Over the same period, about 25 percent were female. The court refused to confirm or deny the numbers.

Past justices, such as Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black jurist, fared little better. "Marshall tried to hire black clerks, and I think he had more than anyone else, but even he didn't have that many," said one of Marshall's former black law clerks who asked not to be identified. "There's a process of self-selection involved. Maybe blacks and women don't think they'll get the job, so they don't apply."

Like everything connected with the court's decision-making process, impenetrable secrecy clouds the reasoning behind who gets chosen and who fails to make the cut. The ethos of the court suggests that justices choose their clerks from an exclusive club of graduates of the nation's elite law schools, most of whom have served as clerks for federal appeals court judges.

Vikram Amar, an Asian American and former clerk to Justice Harry A. Blackmun, said individual justices draw clerks from a narrow pool of highly motivated applicants who have graduated near the top of their class at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and a select few other law schools.

Hewing to a tradition of silence, officials at the court declined to comment on the racial makeup of those who serve as clerks.

But four of the nine justices -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and David H. Souter -- have never hired a black clerk, according to USA Today's statistics. Scalia, who was appointed by President Reagan and has served on the court since 1986, has the worst record of all: Of his 52 law clerks, none has been black, Latino or Asian.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a 1994 appointee of President Clinton, has the best record in percentage terms, with 15 percent of his clerks -- one black, one Asian and one Latino -- among the 20 he has hired. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black jurist, has the second-best record, having employed 12 percent of his clerks from minority groups, including three Asians and one black among the 33 clerks hired since President Bush appointed him in 1991.

Although they remain underrepresented among the clerks, women have been more successful at securing clerkships than racial minorities. Since 1972, the current justices have employed 108 women of the 428 clerks hired. This year, 12 of the 34 clerks are women.

Of the court's two women jurists, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was appointed in 1981 by Reagan, has hired 32 women among her 72 clerks. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993 by Clinton, has hired 10 women and 14 men during her tenure on the bench. Only Breyer's staff has been equally divided between men and women clerks, with 10 of each.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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