Roundtable: O.J. Verdict, and the Supreme Court

Monday's topics: President Bush names his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court; and the O.J. Simpson verdict, 10 years later. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, Tara Setmayer, Republican strategist, and Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the Cousin Jeff Chronicles on BET.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, the new Supreme Court nominee, and 10 years later, the verdict of O.J. Simpson. Just two of the issues that we'll talk about on today's Roundtable.

Joining us from our Washington, DC, headquarters, Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the "Cousin Jeff Chronicles" seen on BET. Republican strategist Tara Setmayer joins us today from Key West, Florida. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us from Maryland. Folks, thanks for joining us.

We were going to get right into the O.J. Simpson verdict, but of course, today's big news from the White House is the nomination of Harriet Miers to sit in the soon-to-be-vacant seat for the Supreme Court, the Sandra Day O'Connor seat. I have done a lot of Roundtables. I have been guest on other programs; pundits, if you will, suggesting who was indeed going to receive this seat. I can say without question, George Curry, I had not heard the word--or the name Harriet Miers raised. Many people, ABC News--the headline here: Who is Harriet Miers?, on their Web site--many people asking that question today.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor In Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Well, there's a reason she wasn't on anybody's list, because she's never been a judge at any level, never even been a traffic court judge. This is, to me, an insult to qualified women who are judges across this country at every level, that you would get someone with no experience, has total allegiance to you, your personal lawyer, your White House lawyer, with no experience as a judge and place them on the highest court in the land. I think it's an insult.

GORDON: Tara Setmayer, there are many, including George Bush, when introducing Harriet Miers to the nation just a few hours ago in a press conference, that will suggest that the court has seen others sit on it who had not been sitting judges or not been sitting judges for years, yet there are those who suggest that their history leading up to--their paper trail, as we call it, better suited them for the bench than does Harriet Miers.

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): Absolutely. And, you know, let it be known that--Excuse me--10 out of 35 justices since 1933 were not prior judges, including Chief Justice Rehnquist in 1971 and Byron White in 1962, who both came from within the presidents' administrations. So this is not something new. This is not something that hasn't been done before, and it isn't necessarily something that disqualifies them from being excellent Supreme Court justices.

But what we do know about Harriet Miers--and it is an interesting choice, and I think that it is a surprise to many on both the left and the right, so I look forward to seeing how the nomination process progresses--but Harriet Miers has been a trailblazer and a pioneer similar to Justice O'Connor. In Texas, she was the first woman president of the Texas Bar Association, the first woman to be accepted into a major law firm in Texas. And Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said at that--he's familiar with that as well from Texas and said that that was no small feat, considering the barriers, the gender barriers that existed at that time. So, you know, Harriet Miers is no stranger to adversity, and she has been a trailblazer in the past.

And, you know, I think what's going to happen is that people are going to--the Senate Democrats have already said that she represents a clean slate, and this was a politically shrewd choice by the administration because of that. They--the Democrats are going to be--it's going to be difficult for them to find a paper trail to necessarily criticize her from one end or the other, but I...

GORDON: Well, that being said, though, Jeff Johnson, that can work both ways...

Ms. SETMAYER: Yes, it can.

GORDON: ...with no paper trail, good and bad.

Mr. JEFFREY JOHNSON (Host and Producer, "Cousin Jeff Chronicles," BET): Sure it can. And I think it's important to reiterate--and I guess I want to kind of disagree on some levels--that despite the fact that she was the first female partner in her law firm and despite the fact that she was the first female head of the Dallas and Texas bar, there are a number of attorneys out there in the country who have that kind of record. It is really obvious and it continues to be a pattern of Bush's nominations. And whether it's to the Supreme Court and whether it's to FEMA or whether it's to the FDA, there continue to be those that are selected for no other reason than because of their close relationship. And so as--to get back to your question, as they begin to review this lack of documentation, it really is going to be imperative that the Senate Judiciary Committee ask pointed questions and that there's really a demand for straight answers from the nominee so that not only the committee but hopefully the American public can have a real indication of who this woman is and what kind of decisions she'll make on the bench.

Mr. CURRY: I go back to this idea, Ed...

GORDON: George Curry, wonderful point, though. What of the idea of the cronyism that people will say is rampant in the Bush administration, particularly coming out of the Michael Brown situation and FEMA? This does make it a very, very interesting choice.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah, but it's not unique. You gotta be fair. I mean, you know, John Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general, so it's not unprecedented, but clearly this is heavily politicized.

But I want to go back to the earlier point I made, and that is, you think about the women who have really earned it, who have served the time, that have proven their ability to the bench, and to pass over all of them for someone who has no experience, I think that's a slap in the face.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I also don't think that it's fair to say that she has no experience. She's not--she attended law school here...

Mr. CURRY: No experience as a judge. She has zero.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...and she...

Mr. CURRY: She has zero as a judge.

Ms. SETMAYER: She was a staff secretary, deputy chief of staff, White House counsel, and, you know, she has an esteemed record as a...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...as a lawyer, which several other Supreme Court justices have had as well. So I think it's unfair to minimize her accomplishments.

Mr. CURRY: I'm not minimizing her accomplishments. I'm saying she has no experience as a judge, and she doesn't.

GORDON: No, but the argument here, George, and I think Tara...

Ms. SETMAYER: But she...

GORDON: ...is making it, is the idea that historically we have seen--and quite frankly, about half of the justices that have sat on the Supreme Court have not had previous sitting-judge experience. They have had much legal experience in their background, but not necessarily as a sitting judge.

Mr. CURRY: In recent years, most of our appointees to the Supreme Court have been distinguished judges, not all of them. I can think...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. CURRY: ...of a couple of them right offhand, but not all of them. But in recent years--yeah, sure, you can go back, but in recent years, most of them have come from the--actually, from the appeals level, not even the district court level.

GORDON: Tara, let me ask you this: As a Republican strategist, how much--and give you the question I gave to George Curry--the idea of just political timing for this president, coming off of the FEMA flap and people looking more closely--the scrutiny being larger in terms of who he appoints in his inner circle. Is this something that you think might backfire, the idea that there were probably others just as, if not more, qualified than Ms. Miers who would not have been labeled with the `cronyism' sticker?

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I think that that has--this choice has opened him up for that potential criticism. That was the other side of what I was going to say before, that it was a shrewd choice in that she did represent--or she does represent a clean slate, and that it's similar in the way that she headed up the vetting committee for Supreme Court nominees, as Vice President Dick Cheney headed up the vetting committee for potential vice presidential nominees, so--and he became the actual nominee. And so in that case, it kind of blindsided many critics because they didn't see this coming.

However, I do agree that the fair criticism will arise of whether this appears to be cronyism or not, and I think that it's going--you're going to see some muted criticism from conservatives and from insiders, which I've already seen, about whether this was a good choice considering the timing. So I think that this is going to be something that will be raised, and I think it's fair criticism, but that's what--the president of the United States has the luxury to nominate who he wants to, and I look forward to the Senate's--that's why we have Senate nomination hearings for...

GORDON: All right, Jeff, let me ask you thi...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...Senate nomination to see...

GORDON: Let me...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...to get familiar with her.

GORDON: All right. Jeff, let me ask you this as relates to that process. Now we saw, many people suggested, that John Roberts to a great degree was rubber-stamped by this committee and that even Democrats who may not have loved the nomination knew that his background was such it would have been a hard fight. One has to believe that because so few people know about Harriet Miers that you will see a contentious, at best, questioning coming from Democrats on the Senate committee. One raises the question here: If, in fact, she takes the Roberts route and does not give much, quite frankly, by means of answers to her ideology and the like, do you expect the Democrats will be brave enough to say no?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm not going to say what I expect; I'm going to say what I hope. And I hope that the Democrats are brave enough. I mean, we recognize how important this seat is. And you know, I think, that many Democrats conceded a great deal with Roberts because they were no longer viewing it as that 5:4 O'Connor seat that was so important. This is going to be very different. And so I do believe--and I will go out on expectation. I do think that some Democrats will be strong enough to be able to ask some of the strong questions, to be forceful in a way that they weren't during Roberts. And the fact that there is a lack of record to lean on is going to force them to. And so I'm hopeful that they ask strong questions and pointed questions so that we are able to see who this woman is, what kind of decisions she's going to make on the bench. And I'm hoping that we're able to--that she's able to demonstrate one way or the other her belief in the fundamental commitment to basic constitutional rights and the role of Congress in protecting all Americans. That's what the court is there for, and that's hopefully what both Democrats and Republicans alike will ask questions of this nominee.

GORDON: George Curry, you talk to a lot of people on the Hill. Do you expect, in fact, that the Democrats will move to filibuster, if you will, if they don't get the kind of answers they believe they should from this nominee?

Mr. CURRY: I'm going to go out on a limb. I hate to--betting my money on Democrats, what they're going to do on the Capitol Hill, but I think they will fight this nomination. I think they will go to the mat on this nomination because this is--there's a world of difference between her and John Roberts. John Roberts not only had--was an appeals court judge, for a short period albeit, but had practiced extensively before the Supreme Court, had clerked the Supreme Court. There's a world of difference between the qualifications of these two people, and I think they will fight on this one.

Ms. SETMAYER: And I...

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SETMAYER: ...would be surprised. I don't disagree with you, George.

GORDON: All right. Well, this is obviously the first day of a number of days where we will continue to look at this.

The marking of an interesting anniversary, and that's the 10-year verdict, the civ--the criminal verdict of O.J. Simpson, one that many people suggested caused us to take a real look at race in this country.

George, a decade later what's the most surprising element of all of the aftermath of that verdict to you?

Mr. CURRY: That anybody cares. We should be interviewing you on the--Ed, because you're the one who ended up getting that exclusive interview with O.J.

GORDON: Yeah, I'm...

Mr. CURRY: We should turn the tables on you.

GORDON: Yeah, I'm forever tied to Mr. Simpson. But that being said, it did raise an interesting point of race and what we like to call how we see things through our own prisms.

Mr. CURRY: Sure. I'd say...

Mr. JOHNSON: He got...

GORDON: Go ahead, George.

Mr. CURRY: ...it exposed it in the raw, and we see the same way in Katrina, which is interesting because...

GORDON: Right.

Mr. CURRY: ...that was, you know, much more neutral, but maybe O.J. Simpson case was a volatile case. And people were actually defending O.J. who really didn't care for him because it really came down to raw racial emotion in terms of how people look at the criminal justice system.

GORDON: Jeff, you wanted to say?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, and I think that there continue to be--whether it's a case or whether it's a tragedy, whether it's history being uncovered--for instance, the Emmett Till case--I think there continue to be instances that rear their ugly head, if you will, within our country, that challenges us on race. I think the problem, Ed, is that we continue to ignore it. And the real issue is: When can we have a country--as a country, have an honest dialogue about the issue of race, about past wrongs that have been done and, more importantly, about how to constructively move forward? And until we do that, looking back at O.J. Simpson and saying, you know, `And 10 years later how has it affected us?' will be the same way we talk of 10 years after Katrina and say, `Did this issue that brought up so many concerns about race in this country lead to legitimate dialogue, whether it's on an academic level or a social level or a political level?' But did it lead to legitimate dialogue that kind of took us over the hump in what's just been the giant pink elephant in the room that we as Americans fail to talk about?

GORDON: And the short answer to that, unfortunately, is no. No, it did not. It--you know, race in terms of conversation in this country happens in segregated arenas only, unfortunately.

Tara, let me ask you about whether you're surprised at the continual visceral response to O.J. Simpson some 10 years later, quite frankly, from white America, as George has already put it. To some degree--to a great degree--black America has moved on, and when you mention O.J. Simpson, there is very little reaction one way or the other. But there seems to be still a large visceral reaction from much of white America when you bring this man up.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's very true. And I think that what surprises me about that is the way that white America still really has no idea about the racial disparities that take place in the criminal justice system. I think with what O.J. Simpson did and what Katrina has done, these are issues that have highlighted the very starkly contrasted views between blacks and whites when they look at issues of race.

And as--the O.J. Simpson verdict was one of those events that I will always remember where I was, what I was doing, similar to September 11th or--it was a huge event. I was in college at the time, and I can remember watching the students of Howard University cheering and high-fiving and feeling sick to my stomach about that because here we knew--it was rather obvious that this man was guilty. But a non-guilty verdict was returned because it was purely about race. And the--it was almost--it was...

GORDON: Well, some--now Tara, let's be fair. Some will take issue with that full characterization.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I mean...

GORDON: And some will suggest the prosecution...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...they--that--they may. They--what I...

GORDON: Some will suggest the prosecution didn't do what they needed to do. That's part of the interest and intrigue of this entire case.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's true, but there's also, I think, an exercise in the cognitive dissonance almost on the part of black America, where there are many who thought that he was guilty, but their behavior was contradictory because they celebrated his guilty verdict because it was a way to stick it to (audio loss) that has been--that has demonstrated injustices for so long. And I just think it was unfortunate that a case like this one was what was used to demonstrate that example.

But we continue to see--I mean, "Frontline" on PBS is going to do a story on this tomorrow, where they're going to examine the role of race rather than justice, necessarily, that was played in--played out throughout the trial. And, again, it just magnifies the stark contrast between the way blacks and whites view things in this country. I think it's fascinating, and I think it's going to continue to resonate for another 10 years. I think we'll be able to look back and see whether...

GORDON: George...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...there have been any changes or not.

GORDON: George, any lessons learned here? Are we going to have better and further and a more appropriate conversation about race after Katrina?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I think we should have them about race, but we shouldn't limit this case to just race. I mean, you had a skilled lawyer there, Johnnie Cochran, who was able to defend his client. `If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.' That they did not--prosecutors a persuasive case. They lost. That does not just come down to race.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CURRY: That was much more involved than race.

GORDON: Jeff, do you believe that we're going to see--with about 15 seconds--national discourse on race in this country anytime soon?

Mr. JOHNSON: No. But I do think that there's a younger generation that has less of the stigma that some elder generations have, and I think there's...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...some hope to do that.

GORDON: All right. Well, I thank you all. Greatly appreciate it. A very, as I often say, spirited discussion. Appreciate it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up, the life and legacy of playwright August Wilson.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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