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Monday, March 10, 2008

Jennings roundup

As often happens when one returns from a professional workshop, the mind is overrun with experiences, conversations, information, possibilities, etc. This is certainly true of my weekend at the National Constitution Center for the 2008 Peter Jennings Project for Journalism and the Constitution.

I'm trying to pick a highlight, but I don't think I can. Certainly there are several people with whom I hope to remain in contact. We had some wonderful breakfast and dinner conversations that ranged from the lousy cooking of Irish mothers to the unique characteristics of Ohio versus Pennsylvania; from who will survive in "The Wire," to what it was like to work for a journalistic legend like Gene Roberts; and all around the colorful political history of Philadelphia ("the only city in which a mayor unleashed a bomb").

We gathered in the early evening hours Saturday in an auditorium careful not to walk into or trip over the C-SPAN paraphernalia lining the room. The room was quickly filling to listen to a discussion on Women and the Law. The featured speaker was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She followed moderator Lynn Sherr onto the stage and looked so tiny, yet when she spoke it was quite clear that her mind is great indeed. She must have stories upon stories to tell about being a woman in a man's world. I would have liked to hear more.

When she graduated from Columbia Law School (at the head of her class) in 1959 she had a four-year-old daughter. No law firm in New York would touch her. But a professor in charge of finding clerkships got her started. He insisted this judge give Ginsburg a chance. If it didn't work out with her, he had another hotshot male lawyer ready to step in. "If you don't give her a chance," she told us, "I'll never refer another law student to you."

The conversation meandered through various discussions of women's struggles in the law profession and how far they still need to go. But Ginsburg mentioned that it was former President Jimmy Carter who deserves the credit for advancing women in the federal judiciary. When he took office in 1976, there was only one female judge. He gave her a position in his cabinet, which left none. By the time he left office in 1980, there were 25 women serving on the federal bench. It was his efforts that really paved the way for Ronald Reagan to appoint Sandra Day O'Connor as the first female Supreme Court justice.

Sherilynn Ifill, law professor at the University of Maryland and facilitator of my case study workshop, was absolutely outstanding. Both she and Gene Pratter, a U.S. District Judge nominated to the Third Circuit, recognized that women still do not hold the high positions in government, business, law firms and nonprofits, but that when they do achieve those positions, they hope women do so not by mimicking men, but by bringing those distinctive qualities of female leaders.

Ifill asks her female and minority students where they see themselves in the Constitution. Most would flip through to the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments. Only a few, Ifill said, recognized that they are visible in the first three words: We the People.

Our case study group continued to examine the issues in our case (Republican Party of Minnesota v. White) over breakfast on Sunday. When we tried to make the case about the validity of judicial elections, Ifill would bring us back to what the case was really about: freedom of speech and its possible tension with the right to due process under the law.

In the end, our group was divided 6-5, with the majority siding with Justice Ginsburg's dissent that the state of Minnesota's "announce clause" was not a violation of free speech. I spoke for dissent in our group, that in the actual case was the majority opinion. Instead of using the words of Justice Scalia's majority opinion, however, I drew from Justice Kennedy's concurrence:
"If Minnesota believes that certain sorts of candidate speech disclose flaws in the candidate's credentials, democracy and free speech are their own correctives. The legal profession, the legal academy, the press, voluntary groups, political and civic leaders, and all interested citizens can use their own First Amendment freedoms to protest statements inconsistent with standards of judicial neutrality and judicial excellence. Indeed, if democracy is to fulfill its promise, they must do so. They must reach voters who are uninterested or uninformed or blinded by partisanship, and they must urge upon the voters a higher and better understanding of the judicial function and a stronger commitment to preserving its finest traditions."
I asked, during our workshop, what the role of the press was in informing citizens of the qualifications of a good judge. That led to an interesting discussion that prompted our small group to ask: What does open-mindedness or judicial temperament mean in the judiciary? Aside from graduating law school and passing the bar, what intellectual requirements comprise a good candidate?

Certainly, the press can do a much better job of explaining to the electorate why partisan issues are not the basis for selecting a good judge.

The experience has left me charged up and ready to tackle more—more of what I'm not yet certain. But as the weekend continues to simmer in my brain, I'm sure all will become clear.

At the end of our time together yesterday, against a spectacularly clear and sunny day, we listened to two Fellows from last year tell us how the project informed their work. Both confessed to getting push-back from their news organizations. Can you imagine? Getting push-back from news organizations on the Constitutional implications of stories?

Word of the day
tenacious: persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired


Jill said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this up. I'm going to be sure to take the time to re-read it. :) Welcome back.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, J.