Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kagan's pick boxes in black leaders

By DeWayne Wickham

President Obama’s choice of Elena Kagan to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has boxed in a lot of black leaders who weren’t consulted in advance on her selection, but now are expected to fend off a left-wing attack on her nomination.

Even so, some of that support came quickly. Just five days after Kagan’s selection, the NAACP announced its endorsement of her after completing what the civil rights organization called “a careful and thorough review” of the 50-year-old nominee’s record.

Back in 1991, the NAACP took 45 days to produce a 77-page report, with an epilogue from John Hope Franklin, to make its case for opposing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. In Kagan’s case, it used just a one-page press release to explain its decision. The press release touted Kagan’s efforts to diversify the student body of the Harvard Law School during her nearly 6-year-stint as dean.

Nonetheless, NAACP President Ben Jealous told me his group’s examination of Kagan was exhaustive, despite the White House’s late attempt to build support among civil rights organizations for the high court nominee whose diversity record has come under attack.

Kagan’s defenders say this is a bad rap. They argue the small number of minorities hired (2 black and an Asian out of 43 permanent, full-time faculty members) brought onto the law school faculty while she was dean shouldn’t be blamed on her. The decision wasn’t hers alone. It required a vote of the faculty, they said.

But that explanation is muddled by the credit Obama gave Kagan in his nomination statement. “At times when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint,” the president said, “she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars” the Cambridge, Mass., law school.

And as if these conflicting claims weren't bad enough, one day before Obama nominated Kagan, a group of 28 prominent black women sent a letter to the president expressing concern about her rumored selection.

It IS into this political swamp that leaders of black civil rights groups now find themselves. There's a sense among some that they're expected to support plays being run by the White House, even though they weren’t in the huddle when they were called.

"There was an unusual level of discipline," Jealous said diplomatically of the White House's failure to give his group advance notice of Kagan's selection. That was valuable time the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group could have used to do its own vetting of Kagan and strengthen its ability to defend her selection.

National Urban League President Marc Morial, whose support the White House also has courted, hasn’t been as quick to jump on the Kagan bandwagon. “We have started this process late,” he said of his group’s examination of Kagan’s record, “because prior to the nomination there was not an opportunity for consultation in advance.”

Morial said the Urban League is waiting for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – which was once headed by Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice and a civil rights icon – to finish its review of Kagan before it takes a position on her.

In the meantime, the White House should do a review of its own. Not of Kagan, but instead of its handling of her nomination, and the shabby treatment it gave black civil rights groups that now may be key to saving Kagan from a growing fury on political left.

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