That's big news. At DePauw University here, the question asked me most often is, "Who's going to replace Justice Byron White?"
Obviously, I don't know. But it's just as well that President Clinton doesn't have the easy political escape of nominating Governor Cuomo. He will learn a lot about America if he has to reconcile this extremely important appointment with the many pressures being put upon him.
"He has to name a woman. It's outrageous to have only one female, conservative at that, on the court when women make up more than half the population."
"It's time to restore the Jewish seat on the Court."
"There are 25 million Hispanics in America, and we deserve a voice on the Supreme Court."
"Clinton ought to nominate a real black person to counteract the influence of Clarence Thomas."
I hear these opinions expressed everywhere and in many ways. In the midst of this clamor someone always asks, sanctimoniously, "Why can't we all just be Americans and stop demanding things on the basis of race or gender?"
The answer is that the United States is not and never has been a melting pot. Racial, ethnic, gender and other prejudices abound, so every group is battling to get the most privilege and protection that it can. Especially in the courts.
I am asked what I would recommend to President Clinton with regard to filling Justice White's seat, or those of a couple of more justices within a few years. I would begin by saying that two groups of Americans scare me:
(1) Those who, like Waco cult leader David Koresh, say they get direct instructions from God.
(2) Those who say they know the original intent of the framers of our Constitution. Retroactive mind readers are not my choice for dispensing modern-day justice.
I couldn't trust anyone who relies on "original intent" to declare what the framers believed about affirmative action, the privacy rights of women, the reading of rights to someone accused of a crime or the freedom to watch a dirty movie in the privacy of one's home, or who is entitled to a radio or TV license.
I don't much give a hoot whether President Clinton nominates a black Baptist, a white Buddhist, a Japanese Catholic or a black female Jew. I just want the nominee to have a sense of compassion for Americans who can't pay for high falutin' lawyers.
I want a new justice who understands that the state, the police, still have overwhelming power and advantages in dealing with an ordinary citizen.
I hope President Clinton chooses someone who has credentials as a legal scholar, but who has enough common sense to regard the Constitution not as a stifling parchment, but as a declaration of rights and freedoms that expand with the growth of our nation and the profound changes of our society.
We will learn a lot about the Clinton presidency when he tells us whom he wants in the seat of Justice White.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.