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Commentary: Obama rebuffs advice on top court

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: White House says top court pick is the president's alone
  • Even so, various groups from across the board are making suggestions, he says
  • Navarrette predicts Latinos will be "shut out," but hopes he's wrong
  • Author: "The unqualified come in all colors, races, ethnicities... as do the qualified"
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board and a nationally syndicated columnist. Read his column here

Ruben Navarrette says women and minorities are vulnerable to being considered unqualified for the high court.

Ruben Navarrette says women and minorities are vulnerable to being considered unqualified for the high court.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Things really have changed with the Obama presidency -- starting with the process for nominating a Supreme Court justice.

When Republican President George W. Bush had the chance to put judges on the Supreme Court, Democrats freely offered opinions and even suggested lists of names of potential nominees they could live with. The media thought this was great, and urged Bush to heed the suggestions in the spirit of bipartisanship.

Now that Obama is president and controls the nominating process, things are different. This week, the White House put special interest groups on notice that this is the president's choice alone and they needn't bother putting forth their preferred candidates. The jab was clearly aimed at the left, where feminist groups are calling for the nomination of a woman, Latino groups want a Latino and the Congressional Black Caucus had the chutzpah to push one of its own members: Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia.

About this, the media is generally supportive -- of Obama. Most of the stories are about how these groups are "lobbying" for this candidate or that one, with a negative connotation. Where was this indignation when the left was "lobbying" Bush?

In news reports this week, White House sources confirmed some names of candidates: Federal appeals court judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.

You'll notice there are no white men on that list. But rest easy. There are already six of them on the Supreme Court.

With so many groups trying to pressure Obama to nominate a woman or a Latino, commentators are sniffing at the idea that race or gender should factor into the president's decision. They probably think they sound enlightened, but they come across as naïve.

By arguing that the job should simply go to the "most qualified" candidate, they assume that there is some objective standard by which a president decides on the "most qualified," as if you put all available information into this giant computer at 1600 Pennsylvania and out pops a name. And by framing the choice as being between merit and diversity, they also assume that the "most qualified" is never a woman or minority.

Which brings us to the catch-22 that women and minorities can't shake. Not long ago, only white males were deemed "qualified" to attend law school. That was even truer at the elite schools that act as farm clubs for the high court. Eventually, society recognized the inequity and took "affirmative action" to correct it, allowing colleges and universities -- including law schools -- to take account of race and gender as one factor among many in admissions.

Now, that first generation of affirmative action babies serves in the federal judiciary and teaches at the best law schools, two places where presidents fish for Supreme Court nominees. And when a chief executive sets out to correct an imbalance -- there is only one woman on the court, not a single Hispanic, etc. -- even if the president goes fishing in those ponds, no matter who he settles on, the nominee will be vulnerable to the charge that he or she has been unqualified since they first cracked open a law book.

Pining away for the days where white males need only apply, a reader wrote: "Even liberals that come before the court understand that someone who began his career with a handout will always be suspect in the talent department and are loath to place their important cases in front of a political appointee."

That's beautiful. Before affirmative action, women and minorities couldn't get jobs because they were thought to be inferior to white males. After affirmative action came along, they shouldn't get jobs because they're suspect. Sorry. The game is rigged. Same as it ever was.

At least the reader was honest. "In fact," he wrote, "some of the judges on the court now were not qualified when they were appointed and some of them are white."

Exactly. The unqualified come in all colors, races, ethnicities and backgrounds, as do the qualified. What do you look for in the next Supreme Court justice?

By the way, some pundits are saying the odds are good that a Latino will get the nod. I hope I'm wrong, but I predict Latinos will be shut out again. Then the administration will expect to get credit for at least including a couple of token Latino names on the short list. After all, I suspect, that was the whole point of including them.

Despite promising to expand opportunity and giving lip service to their concerns, the Democratic Party still takes Latinos for granted. That much hasn't changed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

All About U.S. Supreme CourtHispanic and Latino IssuesBarack Obama

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