Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Some Congressional Black Caucus members and civil rights advocates are concerned about Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s “secluded” northern Indiana upbringing and want senators to ask the Supreme Court nominee about his history of interactions with minorities.

Asking a nominee about his personal history with minorities is rare in judicial nominations, and there is disagreement even among black leaders on whether those questions are fair and how much weight should be given to the answers.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and a member of the CBC, said the issue of minority social experiences does deserve consideration.

“If the only knowledge you have about African Americans or minorities is what you see on the 6 o’clock news, or television and movies which are not accurate representations, that is a problem,” he said. But, he said, Judge Roberts’ answer should not be a “deal breaker.”

Mr. Cummings said his opinion about personal contact was formed when as a state legislator he called for appointed judges to be elected. He said elections forced candidates to go to minority communities and deal directly with residents whose cases they would rule on.

Judge Roberts grew up in Long Beach, Ind., and attended La Lumiere School, a private Catholic High School, with two black students, Paris and Neil A. Barclay, the first two black students admitted. Mr. Barclay said he viewed the nominee as a modest, genuinely nice guy averse to snobbery and the “brightest of the bright” at the school.

Ron Walters, chairman of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said questions about Judge Roberts’ background can serve a purpose.

“The context would have to be explanatory, and that would be, how did his growing up shape his conservatism and his outlook on social issues and society,” he said.

He said it is likely that Judge Roberts had few “multicultural experiences” at Harvard University, and so he would have kept the same views and attitudes he had growing up in a mostly white, conservative state.

Supreme Court nominees are typically asked how they would rule on certain cases and how they reached their conclusions, but in only a few instances is a nominee’s upbringing an issue.

“I don’t recall all nominees doing that,” said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a Democrat, now dean of Howard University Law School, “and I don’t know how much senators regarded that in making their decision.”

Mychal Massie, who serves on the national advisory council for Project 21, a leadership network for black conservatives, said any questions about minority exchanges or how many black or Hispanic friends Judge Roberts has are “specious” and should not be part of the discussion at all.

“There is a different standard for conservative candidates be they black, white, male or female … they are viciously attacked by groups like the NAACP,” Mr. Massie said.

“The [Senate] Judiciary Committee members have the right to question, but keep in mind the standards used for Justices [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and [Stephen G.] Breyer and keep those with the nominations of Janice Rogers Brown, Clarence Thomas, Priscilla Owen, John Roberts and others,” Mr. Massie said.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s sole black member, pre-emptively raised the issue of his background before his confirmation hearings, talking about growing up in Pinpoint, Ga., his relationship with his grandparents and how that affected him as a young adult.

Mr. Schmoke said the only similar situation he could recall was when Justice Ginsburg was asked how the harsh treatment she and fellow female classmates received at the hands of misogynist law professors at Harvard University had affected her.

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