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NAACP calls for 'fair play' in selection of Supreme Court justice

MILWAUKEE - The new Supreme Court justice must be a strong advocate for civil rights, and NAACP members are pressuring lawmakers to make that a priority in the selection process, NAACP officials said at the group's annual convention yesterday.

"We very badly want to support a nominee committed to justice and fair play," said Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We don't want to have to oppose a nominee who is opposed to those things. ... We hope to support someone who brings the country together rather than drives the country apart."

Bond's comments came on the opening day of the group's 96th annual convention, where more than 8,000 people are expected to discuss issues such as reparations for slavery, renewal of the Voting Rights Act and ways of increasing membership.

The gathering comes as the group works to overcome budget shortfalls and recover from allegations that its former president, Kweisi Mfume, played favorites among employees and mismanaged the national staff. It is also fighting an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which claims that NAACP officials' strong criticisms of the Bush administration violated the group's nonprofit status.

Last month, the Baltimore-based nonprofit selected a new president, Bruce S. Gordon, who will start Aug. 1.

Today, a seminar will focus on who will fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her retirement July 1.

NAACP members are being urged to contact the White House and their senators to influence selection of the nominee, said Hilary Shelton, head of the NAACP's Washington, D.C., branch: "We've educated our members on this. We've been doing this ever since we knew the chief justice [William Rehnquist] had thyroid cancer."

The convention will also highlight the persistent health disparities between black Americans and other groups, with panel discussions, free health screenings and fitness sessions planned each day.

"African-Americans have the worst health outcomes of all groups," said Evelyn Lewis, a physician with Pfizer Inc., a pharmaceutical company, who spoke on a panel yesterday. "This is a civil rights issue."

The NAACP's health committee is investigating how well hospitals address racial gaps, and it will grade hospitals in a report card to be released next year, said Rupert Richardson, an NAACP board member from Louisiana and chairwoman of the group's national health committee.

"This is a problem everywhere," Richardson said.

NAACP officials also said that Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, will participate in a discussion on political issues Thursday.

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