Not since the Gulf War have so many students gathered around the television at Harvard Law School's Harkness Commons.
In the past week, Harvard Law students have gathered to the spot where they usually watch "L.A. Law," to observe Judge Clarence Thomas undergo scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee, an event that has made many of them ponder the judicial nomination process, the interaction of law and politics, and the intertwining of politics and race. In fact, Black students at Harvard Law School and at other law schools were interested enough to organize a panel discussion, to be held tonight, on Thomas's nomination.
Like most issues at the notoriously polarized Harvard Law School, there is hardly any consensus among students about whether Thomas should be approved for a post on the nation's highest judicial bench. Yet there is one recurring theme echoed by most of the students interviewed: While they would like to see a Black judge fill the seat left vacant by Justice Thurgood Marshall, they are more concerned with Thomas's ideology than his race in assessing his credentials for the high court.
In fact, several Black students with liberal political orientations maintain that Thomas's race alone is not enough for them to favor his confirmation. Darryl Blane Brooks, a fourth-year graduate student at the Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, says "My strong sentiment is that I would vote against him."
"I like to see Black folks succeed, but that's not enough reason to put him on the court," says Brooks, who is Black.
Brooks says he has reservations about Thomas's "commitment to social justice," because of his opposition to affirmative action. Brooks also says he is concerned that Thomas "might very well be a mean-spirited justice," basing this concern on Thomas's public interactions with his sister.
Another Black law student, Anthony G. Brown '84, who is in his third year at Harvard Law School, agrees that it is "a little suspect that a Black man was chosen to replace Thurgood Marshall." Still, Brown wants Thomas to be confirmed, arguing that "it's good to see that there is a Black man who is conservative in a high position."
While Brown readily acknowledges that many would disagree with him, he says the confirmation process should not be a highly political one. Moreover, he says, the presence on the Supreme Court of a Black conservative like Thomas would send an important message.
"There are Black conservatives out there," Brown says. "We're not all Democrats."
Other students worry that Thomas's appointment to the high court could mean a curtailing of certain basic rights they feel are guaranteed by the Constitution. Julia R. Gordon '85, a Black law student and an active member of the school's Coalition for Civil Rights (CCR), is "terrified" that a court Thomas would serve on will further erode privacy rights, criminal defendants' rights, affirmative action and habeas corpus.
Gordon compares Thomas to Judge Robert Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was rejected by the Senate a few years ago. While Bork's theories of original intent differ from Thomas's theories of original law, Gordon says both jeopardize rights she holds dear. At last week's hearings, Thomas disavowed his belief in natural law.
During the confirmation hearings for the last Supreme Court nominee, Justice David H. Souter '61, some observers expected that he would have trouble being approved if he did not explain his stance on crucial issues such as abortion, a view that proved erroneous when the evasive Souter was easily confirmed. Still, several law students insisted that Thomas should not be confirmed if he does not divulge his views on the variety of issues on which the Senate questions him.
"It's a principle that the guy ought to answer the questions he's asked," says Andrew S. Levin, a first-year law student.
Keith O. Boykin, a third-year law student and active CCR member, agrees: "It's just as important what [Thomas] is not saying as what he has said."
"I would certainly not vote for someone who I thought was stonewalling," Boykin says.
'It's a principle that the guy ought to answer the quesitons he's asked.'