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Politics inevitably enter into choosing a justice

It is interesting to look through the recent discussion in the mass media regarding the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

We are told that it is possible to objectively evaluate Thomas' competence. That is, we should know whether Thomas has learned the legal system, in the same way as we might expect a mason, carpenter or dentist to have learned their respective trades.

President George Bush has said that Thomas is "highly qualified." According to The New York Times, Bush once defined a qualified judge as, among other things, people who "should try to expunge from his or her reasoning all influences other than legal arguments. . . . Such reasoning is about the text of the law as the words were understood by the intelligent people at the time of its enactment." Who are these intelligent people -- Bush and the people who agree with him?

Bush added that "Concerning constitutional questions, proper reasoning is about the text and structure of the document as seen in such light as is shed by whatever is known of the framer's intentions."

This is a very admirable view, except that some people see a fetus as a rights-endowed person, or flag burning as a form of speech. Those who disagree speak of "the framer's intentions."

What is most disturbing about the above quotations is not the use of vague phrases and ambiguous criteria, but rather the way in which they divert attention from more fruitful areas of public debate. We should learn Thomas' beliefs on capital punishment, legal aid for the poor, police powers (such as search and seizure), abortion, birth control and free speech, and argue for or against such views.

Judges are supposed to make decisions based solely on the actions and circumstances of the litigators, independent of who they are. Choosing a judge thus depends on the decisions he or she would take given certain actions and circumstances, rather than criteria that aim to be independent of those decisions.

The appointment of a judge takes place through a representative democratic system, so that the brand of justice meted out reflects the idea of justice that the people have. Judges have been -- and should be -- chosen based on whether their views were acceptable to the elected representatives, despite the smoke screen raised by phrases such as "competence" and "adherence to the constitution."

Terry Eastland regretfully informs us that "court nominations inevitably involve politics." What's more, the Congressional Black Caucus was accused by some of the horrendous crime of opposing the nomination on political grounds. My, the things these politicians do these days!

There have also been articles relating anecdotes in Thomas' life, detailing his rise from poverty, revealing his relationships with friends, defending his "right to be conservative," decrying the stereotyping of blacks as liberals and discussing whether he is a role model for poor blacks. All of this is very interesting, but I thought the debate was about his being on the Supreme Court and affecting the lives of 250 million people through his decisions.


K. Ranganathan is a graduate student and new Tech columnist.