Critics lament loss of woman's perspective

Some question wisdom of putting another white male on high court

President's Nominee For Supreme Court

July 21, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor praised Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to a reporter in Idaho soon after his selection as the president's choice to fill her seat on the Supreme Court was made public, noting, "He's good in every way, except he's not a woman."

To many women, the sight of another white male receiving a lifetime appointment to the most influential court in the nation sends an upsetting message: Despite huge gains in the legal profession, where women make up 30 percent of the bar and more than 50 percent of law school classes, there are still limits, many said.

"The face of yet another privileged white male who went to Harvard is, to me, a slap in the face to women in America," said Karen O'Connor, a professor of government at American University and director of its Women Politics Institute. "If everyone on that court looks the same, they begin to speak in one voice because they've had the same life experiences."

The experiences of men and women in this country, O'Connor and others said, are not the same. A woman's perspective might be shaped by things many men never grapple with, be it gender discrimination or reproductive rights or simply what it means to go through life as a woman. The loss of a female voice could mean the loss of something a man just can't bring to the discussion, whatever that might be in any given case, several said.

"We live in a different world than men, so our responses are going to be different," said Lisa A. Gladden, an assistant public defender in Baltimore and a state senator. "We are moving in a direction of equality. We're not there yet. ...

"We don't want just a whole bunch of suits with pants. We need two skirts in there, three skirts, four. Half the bench should be women. One woman is a token. Two women is a contribution."

While Roberts was on many short lists for the job, he shared those spots with not only women but Hispanics, too. There were many who speculated Bush wanted a more diverse court and wanted to make history of his own -- not unlike President Ronald Reagan, who appointed Sandra Day O'Connor -- by choosing the first Hispanic. The name of his attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, was floated often.

"There's no question there was an expectation and hope of a Hispanic nominee," said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization. "That perspective's been missing from the highest court in the land."

As a Hispanic justice, she said, "you're able to share with your fellow justices just how you interpret things based on your experiences ... and that includes growing up Hispanic in this country."

Others argue that the choice of a Supreme Court justice should strictly concern qualifications and insisting otherwise is a smokescreen for criticizing any conservative nominee.

"There aren't any seats on the Supreme Court that say woman or black or minority," said Wendy E. Long, counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network, which has been working to get Bush's court nominees approved. "The president just went for pure merit, and that's a good thing for everyone."

Said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the conservative advocacy group Concerned Women for America: "It's another way to try to make women's rights an issue. ... It's just another way to express dissatisfaction with the president."

When Reagan made his historic choice of O'Connor, whom he named to the bench in 1981, he had to reach way down into the state court system to find a female Republican he could put on the high court. Twenty-four years later, Bush didn't face the same problem.

"There is a well-stocked pool of talent from which President Bush could have drawn -- right-wing judges -- who are women," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of political communication at the University of Maryland who is writing a book on the Supreme Court confirmation process.

First lady Laura Bush apparently agreed, telling reporters last week that she hoped a woman would replace the first female justice on the high court.

Without O'Connor, the court will have one woman, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and one African-American, Justice Clarence Thomas.

"For its legitimacy, the court should reflect the people of the United States," said Kathy Rodgers, president of Legal Momentum, a women's rights legal advocacy organization. "They have to look like the people they're leading."

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