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Clinton and the federal courts.

President Bill Clinton has a chance to diversify the federal courts for the 21st century. At present, there are more than 100 judgeship vacancies in these courts. And civil rights advocates say that the new composition should include an African-American view of equal justice. Civil rights advocates are pushing President Clinton to nominate more black judges or - at the very least - judges likely to rule in favor of minorities on the crucial issues of employment, housing, education and voting rights.

These lobbyists argue that racial diversity is the answer to a legal system that routinely discriminates against minorities.

Wade Henderson, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, believes President Clinton can reverse a dangerous trend of ignoring other legal voices. "There is an incredible absence of African-Americans in key federal courts in this country," he says.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Oklahoma, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes North Carolina and Virginia, have never had a black judge. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Mississippi, also has no African-American judges. However, Fred L. Banks, a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, is being mentioned as a potential nominee.

Banks says the absence of blacks at this level is particularly ominous, since "99% of federal cases don't go beyond the federal court of appeals."

Julius Chambers, the former NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund executive director, concurs: "There is a need for appointments of people to the bench who are empathetic to the way minorities, women and other disadvantaged folks have been treated." Clinton has heard the arguments. Last year, in a campaign speech before the National Bar Association (NBA), which represents black lawyers, he vowed to be fair in his selections.

The anticipation of more moderate federal court appointments underscores the seriousness of the issues. High on the list is the federal bench's interpretation of recent civil rights law. In 1991, Congress passed and Bush finally signed a civil rights law reversing several Supreme Court rulings that had restricted the scope and remedies of federal job-related antidiscrimination laws. To ensure passage, some pieces of the law were vaguely written, leaving crucial questions for the courts to decide.

Adding to the speculation about the future of the courts is the prospect of three Supreme Court retirements, including that of liberal Justice Harry A. Blackmun. One potental nominee is Amalya Lyle Kearse, a black woman who sits on the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

But having a Democrat in the White House does not ensure bliss. Ethnic groups who fought together for or against a nominee may find themselves competing, says John Crump, NBA executive director.

Advocates of adding more African-Americans to the high court are anticipating opposing arguments that blacks already have a representative in Justice Clarence Thomas. The counter argument is that Thomas' legal view does not always reflect reality for most black Americans.

Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the courts took a conservative turn. Black representation on the federal bench dropped from 49 in 1981 to 43 in 1992, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Justice, an association of public interest law centers.

The report found that together, Reagan and Bush nominated more than 500 federal court judges. Only 11, or about6%, of the 189 selected by Bush were African-American. About 14% of judges appointed by Carter were black. Currently, circuit court judgeships number 179, the district courts 649.

However, the same process that ushered in the conservative turn has halted it for now. "If's always ironic how our political system has a way of adjusting itself," Crump says.
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Author:Cunningham, Kitty
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:605
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