The March, 1977, appointment of Wiley Manuel to serve as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court was a historic breakthrough. The first African-American to sit on the high court, Manuel's presence was not just symbolic. At last, the deliberations of our state's highest court could be informed by a minority voice, a voice that could speak from personal experience of the pervasive impact of racism in our society.
With the appointment of Cruz Reynoso in 1981, California's Mexican-American community also gained a voice on the court. Subsequent appointments were sensitive to the importance of the court's reflecting the diversity of California. Upon Manuel's death in 1982, Allen E. Broussard, another African-American, was named to replace him. After Reynoso lost a confirmation battle in 1986, John A. Arguelles, a Latino, was appointed to the court. When Arguelles retired, Joyce Luther Kennard was appointed. She not only restored gender diversity, but brought a richly diverse ethnic background as an Indonesian-Dutch immigrant to the United States.
Now, 14 years after Manuel's appointment, the retirement of Broussard on Aug. 31 raises the prospect that we will revert to a Supreme Court on which California's largest minority groups are unrepresented. Some are suggesting to Gov. Pete Wilson that we should put "ethnic politics" behind us in making Supreme Court appointments. They urge him to appoint simply the "best and brightest" to serve as a dramatic rejection of "racial quotas" at any level of government appointment. That's bad advice that the governor should reject.
First, it ignores the symbolic role that the Supreme Court plays as the pinnacle of our system of justice. Ultimately, the success of the system is dependent upon the level of public confidence that it inspires. Throughout their tenure, Manuel, Broussard, Reynoso and Arguelles served as tireless ambassadors to minority communities throughout the state. Their mere presence on the court delivered a dramatic message to these communities that they were truly partakers in the system. The four also served as role models for thousands of young people of color struggling to break down the barriers that have historically excluded them or kept them at the bottom rungs of the legal profession.
Second, the suggestion that the appointment of a minority would reduce the process to a "racial quota" system is pernicious and defamatory. The indisputable fact is that the "best and brightest" includes candidates of every color.
We've made enormous progress in appointing minorities to judicial positions at every level in the past two decades. Many have demonstrated all of the qualities that make a great Supreme Court justice: intelligence, integrity, independence and a willingness to work very hard. They also come in all stripes of political and judicial philosophy.
The "racial quota" mind-set we have to overcome is that there should only be one of each on the high court. If we were to truly overcome the concept of "racial quotas," we would have a majority of minority justices, just as we are about to have a majority of minorities in our population. The prospect of a Supreme Court that excludes our two largest ethnic minorities simply cannot be disguised as a triumph of meritocracy--it will be widely perceived as a resurgence of racism.
Finally, the suggestion that "ethnic politics" should be irrelevant ignores the reality that the Supreme Court decides profound questions of public policy.
Resolving these questions correctly requires a deep understanding of every aspect of our society. At the Supreme Court level, the judicial process is a collective endeavor, and each justice brings to that process a different view of the world. This diversity of world views enriches the process, and will produce rulings that are much more acceptable to the diverse society that must live with those rulings.
Pete Wilson has not been insensitive to these concerns. His record as a senator in promoting the appointment of highly qualified minorities to the federal bench was an excellent one. Many of those appointees should be among the candidates he now considers to replace Broussard.
It would be a tragic mistake for this governor to take us back to the days when our highest court was a colorless institution.