Hanna: Advice To Aspiring Judges

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(HOST)  Since Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, commentator and Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna has been thinking about what advice she would give to aspiring judges.

(HANNA) We often hear commencement speakers tell students to take risks, to find their voice, to speak truth to power.

And then there’s comedian Ian Shoales, who has advised graduating students to do something really, really bad, and then write a book about it.

But if were giving a speech to college graduates who aspired to be judges, it would go something like this:
It isn’t easy to become a judge, especially a federal judge with a lifetime appointment, so you’ve got to start planning for it now.

The first thing to do is play it safe. Go only to Harvard or Yale, and do not attend parties where there may be questionable activity. I was once at a party with people dressed in drag.  That is what we might call a career-shortening move.

Don’t give money to any charities, not even those that help animals. You could be labeled as a radical animal rights activist.  Try explaining that at your confirmation hearing.

Don’t join organizations like the Women’s Bar Association.  It will tip off the Senate that your background might actually influence how you experience the world.

Stick with the traditional stuff, like the student newspaper.  No – scrap that too.  You might appear sympathetic to the First Amendment.  Don’t join anything.

Don’t speak your mind. At dinner parties, when people ask you what you think of the President’s health care plan, cite Socrates.  Make a joke. Talk sports. Pretend you didn’t hear the question.

Keep big ideas to yourself.  And for goodness sake, don’t write anything that could be interpreted as an argument.

But most of all, even if you have some professional passions, like cleaning up the environment, don’t act on them.

Why do I say this?  Let’s look at both Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts – both of whom are more than qualified to serve on the Court. Were I a Senator, I would support both. And while Kagan has been accused of being a deliberate and cautious person who never takes intellectual risks, the exact same observation could have been made of Roberts when he was nominated.

Like Roberts, I expect Kagan to sail through the nomination process relatively unscathed, save some concerns about her stance on the Military’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell Policy. While Justice Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed despite once referring to herself as a "wise Latina woman," no judge wanna-be will ever do that again.

Long gone are the days when great civil rights attorneys like Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of Howard Law School, or former politicians, like Sandra Day O’Connor, would be considered. Today, we prefer judges who have spent their entire careers with their eyes on a single prize.

Unfortunately, the result is that the pool of potential judges is getting shallower every day. And while people like Kagan and Roberts might be excellent judges, there’s something seriously wrong with our democracy when the Court becomes the ultimate bastion of elitism.

But that won’t change unless the public demands judges that are as human as the rest of us.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Cheryl Hanna on-line at VPR-dot-net.

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