Monday, May 25, 2009

Obama's First Supreme Court Pick: A New Perspective Needed

Obama will soon get to select his first pick for the US Supreme Court. It seems likely to be a woman, perhaps a minority woman. And that is good. We need more women on the court. We also need more minorities, particularly those who come from a non-privileged background. But beyond that, we need something far more important. We need a fresh perspective on the court.

What is missing from the court, and what is missing from most judicial positions, is the poor defendants' perspective. We need someone on the court who has a great deal of personal, in-the-trenches experience with the criminal justice system, on the defense side, representing poor defendants. In short, a 20-30 year veteran of a large metropolitan area public defender's office is what the court needs. Prosecutors are vastly overrepresented on the courts, particularly at the higher appellate level. As are lawyers who represent the monied elites. There is no one on any significant court who has real trench lawyer experience, from the soul-crushing perspective of defending thousands upon thousands of poor defendants.

This position will be just one vote of nine. And this is replacing a center-left judge as it is, so there are not likely to be any earth-shattering alterations in the court's jurisprudence from this pick. But what there will be is a voice in the room. A voice that can counter the too-often heard judicial voice that, though some legal fiction or another, completely negates the real-world experience of the court system as seen from the eyes of those who are most often crushed by it: indigent defendants. Just having that voice in the room where those nine justices hash out their decisions will make a real difference. Thurgood Marshall was that voice once. That voice is sorely missed. I hope Obama puts that voice back on the court. I somehow doubt he will this time, since exactly zero of the listed candidates are public defenders, but maybe he'll get another pick after this one. I won't exactly be holding my breath then, either. But I can dream, for now.

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