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News Briefs II

Rehnquist Denies Bias in Hiring Law Clerks

The Washington Post

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist told three black members of Congress the justices have not discriminated in the hiring of law clerks.

But in an unusual letter defending the Supreme Court, the chief also acknowledged the low number of blacks and Hispanics chosen for the prestigious positions and said, "We select as clerks those who have very strong academic backgrounds and have had previously successful law clerk experience, most often in the federal courts. As the demographic makeup of this pool changes, it seems entirely likely that the underrepresentation of minorities will also change."

Rehnquist also rejected a request by the three House members - Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., and Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y. - to talk to minority bar groups about the selection process.

"I was shocked and disappointed, to say the least," Davis said of the letter, which was written Nov. 17 but made public by the court Monday. "I had hoped that it would have suggested some corrective action." Davis said he did not accept Rehnquist's suggestion that minorities are underrepresented in the pool of qualified clerk candidates. "I'm sure there are lots of minorities with excellent credentials," he said.

For months, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Bar Association and other minority rights groups have been pressuring the justices to do something about the low number of blacks and Hispanics who become law clerks. Nearly 1,000 civil rights activists protested at the court's opening day in October, and the NAACP in recent weeks has been asking its members to write letters of protest to the high court.

Clerks are in a position to recommend which appeals should be heard at the high court and usually write first drafts of opinions supporting the justices' votes in a case.

Alcohol May Be Added to Carcinogen List

The Washington Post

A panel of government science advisers has recommended adding booze to the list of substances believed to cause cancer in people.

The nonbinding recommendation was made last week by the National Toxicology Program's Board of Science Counselors, an independent panel that reviews cancer research and advises federal regulators on potential health threats. By a 9 to 3 vote, the group said alcohol should be listed as a "known human carcinogen" in a government report due next year.

The panel reached the same conclusion for secondhand tobacco smoke, and said diesel fumes were "reasonably anticipated" to cause cancer. For a substance to be a "known human carcinogen" there must be convincing human studies or epidemiological data linking it to cancer.

The panel stressed that the cancer risk from alcohol is much more pronounced among smokers and heavy drinkers. Some panel members also noted that moderate alcohol consumption may have an overall beneficial health effect for many people.