If Thomas talks, maybe he'll listen


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is going to break bread with the National Bar Association. On July 29, he will be the luncheon speaker at the group's annual convention in Memphis.

Typically, invited speakers are admired and respected by the groups they address. Justice Thomas does not meet that criteria with the majority of the NBA. The organization of 17,000 black lawyers, judges and law students opposed Mr. Thomas' nomination to the high court in 1991. Nothing he has done on the court has altered that negative opinion.

In critical 5-4 votes, Justice Thomas took stands against affirmative-action remedies and, in effect, ignored the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment. To the horror of most blacks, the token appointed to represent minorities in interpreting law slavishly follows the thinking of his mentor, Justice Antonin Scalia, an arch-conservative. Other justices, such as David Souter, demonstrate more awareness of the realities of racial injustice than does Justice Thomas.

Early on, Justice Thomas said that, whether blacks like it or not, he is a relatively young man in good health with an appointment for life. He urged black detractors to get used to him. Perhaps that reality prompted Louisiana Supreme Court Judge Bernette Johnson to reach out to him.

Top black jurist

On behalf of the NBA's judicial branch, she initiated the invitation for Justice Thomas, and he accepted. During a TV interview, Judge Johnson acknowledged that she believes many of Justice Thomas' votes -- such as his dissent when the court ruled for the plaintiff in a prison brutality case -- have been unfair. She insisted, however, that black jurists need a dialogue with the nation's most prominent black jurist.

A group of NBA members led by retired federal appeals court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. disagrees. They asked the NBA to rescind the invitation. In a letter of protest to the executive committee, Judge Higginbotham said it was like asking former Alabama Gov. George Wallace to speak. "We have to have some response to individuals who articulate policies that are so very harmful to minorities," argued Judge Higginbotham, now a private lawyer and Harvard professor.

In spite of the executive board's 12-3 vote last week to cancel the invitation, it has not been withdrawn. Last week, NBA President Randy K. Jones, speaking by phone from San Diego, confirmed that the luncheon date is still on. He said the controversy is "settling down some" and added: "NBA members have different political philosophies and views. The NBA is not a monolithic group."

I'm glad Justice Thomas accepted this invitation. Like Judge Johnson, I believe black jurists need to talk with this man, who represents us regardless of whether he represents our best interests. Having him address an audience of peers uniquely aware of the racial injustices inherent in so much of this nation's legal system could be enlightening for him. To his discredit, he often embraces a philosophy that excludes logic.

A strange thing it is to be a Negro, wrote James Baldwin. In the crucible of racial tensions that conditions our lives, one can easily become deformed. Rejection is such a force that one may deny the truths of one's own experiences to be accepted by whites. Justice Thomas has gone that route.

For our sake, we need him to come back among us to reacquaint himself with the legal realities of our lives. For his own self-respect, he needs to understand that one can be black and American without denying one identity to gain the other.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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