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Despite widespread appeals, Obama fails to appoint Black woman to Supreme Court

By Hazel Trice Edney -NNPA Editor-in-Chief- | Last updated: May 11, 2010 - 9:42:33 AM

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President Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Offi ce in late April. On May 10 he nominated her to fi ll the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy. Photo courtesy, the White House
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - In what could be considered as the most powerful public appeal to President Barack Obama thus far on behalf of racial justice, 28 Black women sent the President a letter expressing concern that he might appoint Solicitor General Elena Kagan as the successor for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the U. S. Supreme Court and reasserted a request that he consider a Black woman instead.

But, the May 9 letter was too late. Less than 20 minutes after receiving the document, emailed to the NNPA News Service around 10:37 p.m. from Melanie Campbell, CEO and convener of the Black Women's Roundtable (BWR), a breaking news email from the Washington Post came headlined, “Obama to pick Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.” By the morning of May 10, the news was out and widely reported.

Still the letter was strong and clear, sending an “end-of-honeymoon” type message that President Obama must begin to listen to those he credits for having put him in office with hopes for Black progress.

“As we have throughout history, African-American women played a significant role in the 2008 election because we were especially aware of the impact this presidency would have for generations to come,” states the letter, dated May 9. “Our trepidation regarding General Kagan is premised on the lack of a clearly identifiable record on the protection of our nation's civil rights laws. As women leaders, we greatly respect General Kagan's intellectual capabilities and highly accomplished record in the Administration and academia. Nonetheless, there is a dearth of a specific emphasis on the civil rights laws utilized in the protection of racial and ethnic minorities and those traditionally disenfranchised in this nation.”

The letter also asserted, “Especially disconcerting is the perceived lack of real consideration of any of the extremely qualified African-American women as potential nominees. While we were very pleased to witness the placement of the Honorable Leah Ward Sears and Judge Ann Claire Williams on the reported lists of potential nominees, there did not appear to be any serious consideration of their candidacy, once again.”

The women's names, listed on the bottom of the letter, represent a broad section of leadership in the Black community. The letter described them as members of the “Black Women's Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP) and African American female faith leaders and legal scholars.”

The letter not only appeals to the President's espoused sensitivity to the plight of African-Americans, but reminds him of the staunch position of the late Dr. Dorothy Height who he eulogized only two weeks ago: “Mr. President, the nominations and appointments you make today will be far-reaching, particularly for the Supreme Court. As we continue to promote the legacy of our late founding leader and Co-Convener, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, we will always seek to highlight the concerns of Black women, our families and our communities. Thus, as Dr. Height stated in our previous meeting with your Administration, we believe it is time for African American women to be represented in all sectors of government—including the Supreme Court of the United States, which in its 221 year history has not had a Black woman nominated to serve on our highest court in the land.”

Supreme Court appointments are rare given that justices serve for a lifetime. Still Obama has nominated Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School rather than seize the opportunity to not only make history, but to further diversify the court with different perspectives. The BWR also cited “Justice Stevens' leadership in protecting and defending civil rights on the Supreme Court” as a compelling need to appoint someone with similar views.

Political scientist and Black political strategist Dr. Ron Walters says the Supreme Court appointment is yet another revealing moment for the administration of America's first Black president as close to 100 percent of Black voters supported him.

“It is another one of those pin pricks where African-Americans are not happy with the president's decision. These things were inevitable, but they continue to happen. And this was just another one,” Walters says.

Walters sought to explain Obama's decision as disseminating from the “elite crowd of Harvard law school that's the other world that he's been traveling in since he was a very young person.”

He warns, “Don't underestimate the strength of that culture because it is certainly there. And he is a part of that culture. As a matter of fact, I would dare say that he is more a part of that culture than he is of the civil rights culture.”

Another disappointing issue has been the President's handling of Black economic justice as he has maintained a “rising tides lifts all boats” philosophy even as Black unemployment remains stagnant or continues to rise month after month.

A push for greater diversity on the court had been a major topic of discussion over the past weeks since Stevens announced his intent to retire late this spring. In a recent column, NNPA Columnist George Curry quotes Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer and former civil rights litigator, as predicting that Obama's next appointee would be more conservative than Stevens.

The column quotes Greenwald: “ ‘(1) Kagan, from her time at Harvard, is renowned for accommodating and incorporating conservative views, the kind of ‘post-ideological' attribute Obama finds so attractive; (2) for both political and substantive reasons, the Obama White House tends to avoid (with few exceptions) any appointees to vital posts who are viewed as ‘liberal' or friendly to the Left; the temptation to avoid that kind of nominee heading into the 2010 midterm elections will be substantial … and (3) Kagan has already proven herself to be a steadfast Obama loyalist with her work as his Solicitor General, and the desire to have on the Court someone who has demonstrated fealty to Obama's broad claims of executive authority is likely to be great.' ”

Curry adds, “The most disturbing aspect of a possible Kagan appointment is her admiration of the Federalist Society, a network of conservative and libertarian students, law professors, attorneys and judges whose goal is to advance the conservative agenda by pushing America's legal system to the right.”