Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina) is fast becoming one of my favorite political leaders. Now, he’s advising Pres. Joe Biden to make a ground-breaking choice (in more ways than one) for the Supreme Court.
It was Clyburn who saved the Biden campaign from oblivion in the South Carolina primary, propelling him to his party’s nomination. It’s likely that Joe Biden is the only candidate who could have defeated Donald Trump. As it was, he won in the Electoral College by only 44,000 votes over three states. Flip that many votes in Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia and Trump gets another four years.
And since then, Clyburn has been a steady voice of reason, skillfully negotiating the fault line in the Democratic Party between progressive policy and practical politics, between aspiration and what’s possible.
Now, he’s pushing for Biden to fulfill his promise to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court by choosing Judge J. Michelle Childs. (It is thought that liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, will step down soon.) What’s significant about Childs isn’t just that she’s Black and a woman (that was already a given), but that she did not go to an Ivy League school.
Childs picked up her degree from the University of South Florida and her J.D. from South Carolina. (That may have something to do with the South Carolinian Clyburn’s enthusiasm for her.)
“One of the things we have to be very, very careful of as Democrats is being painted with that elitist brush,” said Clyburn in a recent New York Times story, adding: “When people talk to diversity they are always looking at race and ethnicity — I look beyond that to diversity of experience.”
He’s right. Until last year, every one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court went to Harvard or Yale. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added some diversity… she went to Columbia Law School, but she was a Harvard undergrad. Ginsburg was replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, who went to Notre Dame, but there is still no state school graduate on the court.
That matters. As Clyburn points out, when people talk about diversity they usually mean racial and gender diversity. But would a Black woman who graduated Harvard Law School have as much diversity of experience from her colleagues as a woman who went to South Carolina? As good as Harvard and Yale are, don’t they still represent a narrow range of experience? And, is it a good thing to have virtually the entire court captured by only two schools?
Times have changed fast. Just five years ago, none other than Pres. Barack Obama mocked the idea that he had to appoint a justice based on their race or gender. When he was criticized for choosing Merrick Garland, he quipped, “”But at no point did I say: ‘Oh, you know what? I need a black lesbian from Skokie in that slot. Can you find me one?’ ” the president said. “I mean, that’s just not how I’ve approached it. Yeah, he’s (Garland) a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist, sorry.”
And yet only a few years later, Joe Biden found it necessary to promise explicitly during the campaign that he would appoint a Black woman to the court, placing race and gender above any other qualification. As Clyburn points out, maybe the real problem with Garland wasn’t so much that he was another white guy, but that he was another Harvard guy.
Still, political realities are what they are and Biden doesn’t have the same options his former boss had. His Democratic base now demands a Black woman on the court and there are plenty of qualified candidates out there. Choosing a Black woman who did not go to Harvard or Yale would bring a refreshing new perspective to the court.
Let’s hope the president listens to Jim Clyburn, the man who is more responsible than anyone for giving him the chance to make this historic choice.