The U.S. Supreme Court lacks a rural voice, and the top candidates being mentioned in the national media as possible replacements for departing Justice John Paul Stevens don’t have the biographies to change that.
What’s more, when Stevens leaves, there will be no Midwest natives on the High Court.
In 2009, as Sonia Sotomayor joined the court and Justice David Souter, who grew up in Weare, N.H., left, the Court’s collection of nine biographies became almost wholly urban, Eastern and heavy on Ivy League education.
On his last two conference calls with the Daily Yonder and other media U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, addressed this issue, saying he would like to see a nominee “who has run for sheriff” and “hasn’t just been buried in the law library for the last 30 or 40 years.”
Specifically, Harkin said President Obama should consider someone with rural ties.
After all, 20 percent of the United States is rural, and to have the nation’s final-say panel populated by urbanites who see land and environmental issues from an outsider’s perspective is disturbing.
“Sure, I’d like to see someone from a rural area on the Supreme Court,” Harkin said. “You bet I would.”
Harkin also urged President Obama to consider candidates from the Midwest.
If Hispanics at 15 percent of the population can make the case they deserve representation, rural Americans and Midwesterners can as well.
The issue of race continues to be a dominant one in American society, and diversity on the court in that regard is vital. It’s wonderful Hispanics can now see someone who looks like them on the court. But we need some justices who live like us in the wide-open spaces, where Americans work with the land. It’s not just scenery for us.
Of the nine justices, only Clarence Thomas can lay claim to any real rural ties. He was born in Pin Point, Ga., a rural community founded by free slaves. But Thomas lived there for only six years (albeit without indoor plumbing) before his house burned and a grandfather took him to the nearby city of Savannah.
Four of the justices hail from the New York City area. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is from Brooklyn, and Sotomayor was born in the Bronx. Trenton, N.J., just one American city, has more representation than all of rural America. Both Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were born there.
One prominent name floated as the next nominee is Solicitor General Elena Kagan, from New York City. The other most prominently mentioned candidates come from Houston and New Jersey and Los Angeles.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. grew up in Long Beach, Indiana, along Lake Michigan just outside of Chicago. It is not a place most people from rural America would consider as such.
The only justice born in the Midwest is Stevens, who is from Chicago. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer were born in California.
When Harkin was asked if the absence of a rural voice is a cause for alarm, he said, “That sort of ebbs and flows. I don’t know if it would hurt us.”
Obama owes his presidency in large part to rural America as his political fortunes turned dramatically when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.
It is heartening that the president will return to Iowa next week. We hope he remembers the fields and folks of rural America when making that Supreme Court selection, too.