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For Supreme Court Clerks, the Majority Rules

Minorities: The influential posts have traditionally been dominated by whites, and this year the deficit is greater than usual.

October 04, 1998|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court opens its new term Monday, 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 minority, a Latina.

And 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 Assn. 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," NAACP President and Chief Executive Kweisi Mfume said. "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, fewer than 2% of the 428 clerks selected by justices have been black, about 4% have been Asian American, 1% have been Latino and none have been Native American, according to a three-month research project by USA Today. Over the same period, about 25% were women. The court refused to confirm or deny the numbers.

And even past justices, such as Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black to serve on the Supreme Court, 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 picked 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 already 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 model their offices like small, high-powered law firms, drawing 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 have been black, Latino or Asian.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a 1994 appointee of President Clinton, has the best record in percentage terms, with 15% 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% of his clerks from minority groups, including three Asians and one black among the 33 clerks hired since President Bush appointed him in 1991.

Though they remain underrepresented among the clerks, women have been more successful at securing clerkships than racial minorities. Since 1972, 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.

Minority clerks who have experienced Supreme Court life firsthand say the justices might benefit from more diverse staffs.

"I agree with those who say the justices should widen the pool from which they hire," said Ivan Fong, who worked as a clerk for O'Connor during the 1989-90 term and is now a deputy associate attorney general at the Department of Justice.

"There is an element of risk aversion in the selection or hiring process. The justices may have favorable experiences with law clerks from certain schools, or with those whom certain professors have suggested. I think that may limit the pool, perhaps, unnecessarily," Fong added.

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