by CHARLES M. BLOW
This week I was invited to a lunch at which former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the Supreme Court was the speaker. With the rumbling about Justice John Paul Stevens’s impending departure, I just had to go.
O’Connor, 80, was rather feisty and funny and confined her prepared remarks to the deplorable state of civics education in this country and to promoting her new project, ourcourts.org, a Web-based educational site designed to combat the problem. “Only 1 in 7 Americans knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the Supreme Court, but two-thirds can name at least one judge of ‘American Idol,’ ” she said.
But during the question-and-answer portion, she made a strong case for more diversity of experience and gender on the court.
On the issue of the court being completely composed of former federal judges, she said: “In the past, we’ve had a very diverse court, at times, and typically we’ve had people on the court who didn’t serve one day as a judge. Sorry. You know. I’m a judge. I like judges. But we don’t need them all on the court. And we need people of different backgrounds.”
In fact, according to a 2005 article in The Christian Science Monitor, 41 of our Supreme Court justices have had no prior judicial experience. That’s more than a third.
But it’s been so long since a confirmed justice wasn’t a judge at the time of the nomination that Americans now feel that being a judge is a prerequisite. According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 50 percent of respondents thought that having a justice who had experience as a judge was essential.
(The last justices who were not judges were Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William Rehnquist, who were nominated to the court on the same day in 1971 by Richard Nixon. I wasn’t even a year old.)
On the issue of needing more women on the court, O’Connor said: “Our nearest neighbor, Canada, has four women on its nine-member court, and one is their chief justice. And they’re a great group. Now what’s the matter with us? You know, we can do better.” Indeed, we can and should.
We don’t need more women because legal outcomes necessarily would be different, but specifically because they wouldn’t. The question isn’t why more women, but rather why not?
Stevens, who made it official on Friday by announcing that he would retire this year, is a liberal, so Obama’s selection is unlikely to tilt the balance of the court. But his selection could allow him to go down in history as the president who most changed its tenor and texture by making it more representative of the nation over which it presides.
One name widely speculated to be on the president’s short list is the solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean, Elena Kagan. She’s not only a woman, but she’s also not a judge. Check and check.
Once again the bullet is proud to present New York Times Columnist & nationally known commentator Charles M. Blow with several hundred words of blistering political commentary: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”