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Gambit Weekly Standing Up to the PC Gendarmes

By Clancy DuBos

JUNE 15, 1998:  Hats off to Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson for standing up to the Thought Police in the National Bar Association, a group of black attorneys and judges. In this age of political correctitude, she has committed the unspeakable crime of inviting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to address the NBA's Judicial Council, which consists of roughly 1,600 African-American judges.

Johnson chairs the association's Judicial Council, and in that role exercised her authority to choose a keynote speaker for the Judicial Council's July 29 luncheon.

Thomas, of course, has been a pariah in many black political circles because he is a Republican and an outspoken opponent of affirmative action. In fact, when Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court by President George Bush in 1991, the organization representing the nation's 17,000 black attorneys and judges opposed his confirmation. As a member of the Supreme Court, he has been a solid conservative vote.

Johnson is a liberal Democrat whose philosophical compass is hardly in sync with that of Thomas. As judges, they can safely be said to be near-polar opposites.

Bernette Johnson won't rescind her invitation to Clarence Thomas.

But Johnson's aim in inviting Thomas to address the black judges' luncheon was not to validate Thomas' opinions; rather, she simply hoped to foster debate among professionals who disagree. One would think that a group of judges -- who are supposed to listen impartially to all sides of an issue and then weigh the merits of each argument blindly before forming opinions -- could grasp the fundamental fairness (another judicial hallmark) of Johnson's move.

Unfortunately, the PC gendarmes on the Judicial Council didn't see it that way. Two weeks ago, the council's executive committee voted to rescind the invitation, which Thomas had already accepted.

To her credit, Johnson has stood her ground. She denied a newspaper report that the invitation had been withdrawn and pointed out that, as head of the council, it is her prerogative to issue it.

"I will acknowledge that there had been some controversy," she told The Times-Picayune. "I will acknowledge that there are some members of the Judicial Council that are unhappy with the invitation.

"I tried to explain that in order to facilitate debate, you have to invite people who disagree with us. There are 1,600 African-American judges around the country, so the Judicial Council has to be that kind of broad umbrella that would include persons that would have varying opinions on other issues."

In accepting Johnson's invitation, Thomas has indicated that he is interested in the kind of dialogue that Johnson envisioned. But that apparently doesn't sit well with some folks.

One member of the council has reportedly compared Thomas' invitation to asking George Wallace or Ross Barnett to address the group. Such rhetoric may make nice headlines, but on a substantive level it rings hollow and demeans the group much more than it does Thomas. In fact, it shows a good many black jurists to be imitating their oppressors.

Johnson noted that Thomas has been a member of the group for years and thus is welcome at the meeting in his own right. Besides, she told one group of black lawyers, "Sometimes you have to make peace with your enemies.

"The British are sitting down with the Irish. Palestinians are talking with Jews. And the Hutus can make peace with the Tutsis, but we can't live with Clarence Thomas?" Johnson asked.

The president of the National Bar Association, the parent group of the Judicial Council, agreed with Johnson's interpretation of her authority as council chair to invite Thomas and said the justice likely will appear.

Of course, there's no telling what kind of reception Thomas will get. But give Johnson credit for doing the right thing and then standing firm. Her mentor, the late Dutch Morial, would have been proud.

Meanwhile, a good many of the nation's black judges need to realize that the more they abuse and disrespect Thomas, the more they weaken their own standing as righteous defenders of fundamental fairness and equality under the law -- not to mention that benchmark of First Amendment freedoms known as the marketplace of ideas.

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