June 3, 2005
On Better Supreme Court Justices

by Donald G. Mashburn

We may soon see a replay of the battle between supporters of “legal elitists” and supporters of lawyers and judges who have demonstrated high regard for the Constitution. Already we’ve heard much hypocritical blather from liberal senators about “mainstream” judges, in their efforts to block President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

That hypocrisy brings into sharp focus the fact that liberal extremists like Senators Joe Biden, D-DE, Ted Kennedy, D-MA, Harry Reid, D-NV, and Charles Schumer, D-NY, put their liberal agenda above the fair selection of a good appellate judge or Supreme Court justice.

That sad fact will become even clearer when the senate votes on the president’s first nomination for the Supreme Court.

Recall the underhanded, crummy way senate liberals treated now Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when he was nominated for the high Court? The liberal media promptly focused on the nominee’s background, the poverty experienced by his family during Thomas’ early childhood, and, of course, his conservative views.

It seemed the liberals wanted to plant the idea that a poor, black lawyer could not, for reasons known only to liberals, handle the weighty problems that come before the High Court. Many in the liberal media seemed less interested in having an objective, competent replacement for the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall than in having Marshall's liberal philosophy perpetuated on the Court.

On the other hand, nearly all more objective observers agreed that coming from humble beginnings and actually knowing what it's like to be poor were desirable experiences for a member of our highest court.

Today, Justice Thomas, who has distinguished himself both on and off the Court, could teach liberals, and others across the political spectrum, something about poverty. If he lacked any descriptive terms, his mother or childhood friends from Georgia could readily supply them.

That real poverty is not easily understood is illustrated by no less an observer than Patrick Buchanan. In Right From the Beginning, he writes, “To view poverty simply as an economic condition ... is simplistic, misleading and false; poverty is a state of mind.”

Mr. Buchanan's credentials as a writer are considerable. But in his definition, and understanding, of poverty, he's wrong. And I am qualified to say so.

I won't bore you with all the details of hunger and sleeping in unheated drafty houses—not even true stories of having to gather firewood barefoot, with frost on the ground. But trust me; I know poverty. And Buchanan's statement tells me he never went to bed having eaten only a half-cup of rolled oats at mid-day—consumed without salt, sugar or milk. If he had, he could never say that poverty is only “a state of mind.”

Having met Clarence Thomas, and reflecting on his background, his time on the Supreme Court, and on other matters of national import, I think it’s beneficial to have someone on the Supreme Court who understands—personally—hunger and need.

Poverty isn't something to be worn like a badge, or ribbon of honor. But it's not something to be ashamed of, either. And neither Judge Thomas nor I will ever forget that.

Many people of accomplishment have known poverty. To put some precision into the term, I'm referring to gut-gnawing poverty, the kind that cramps an empty stomach and chills a coatless back, and can soak down into the very soul, dissolving the hope and determination of the spirit.

But few, if any, of today's politicians know that kind of poverty, despite their eloquent support for pouring tax dollars into new social programs.

Truth is, most of them have ridden into government on a ticket purchased with family money or with funds from special interest groups representing labor unions or industry.

The sorry performance of the Senate during the four-year battle on President George W. Bush’s circuit court nominees indicates that, today, wisdom, integrity and fairness are in short supply in the U.S. Senate. Still, there are a few good men and women who stand for fairness in selecting fair-minded judges.

It is hoped that these will see through the liberals’ false front of “bipartisanship” and choose judges because of their qualifications, not because of their support of a narrow political agenda.