1998 NCC News Archives

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NCC Deputy General Secretary Arrested at U.S. Supreme Court

October 5, 1998, WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A top National Council of Churches executive was arrested for civil disobedience today, following a rally to demand that U.S. Supreme Court Justices hire more minority law clerks.

The Rev. Dr. Staccato Powell, NCC Deputy General Secretary for National Ministries, was among the about 20 participants in the NAACP-sponsored rally, held in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, to disregard a warning not to cross a police line. "We wanted to deliver petitions to the Justices, primarily Chief Justice William Rehnquist," Dr. Powell said.

He, NAACP President/CEO Kweisi Mfume and the others were arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail. They were held for about 90 minutes before being formally charged, then were transported to court for arraignment, Dr. Powell reported by phone shortly before the arraignment.

The rally addressed the finding (USA Today, 9/10/98) that of the 394 law clerks hired by the current judges during their respective terms, fewer than 2 percent have been African American, only 1 percent Hispanic, and fewer than 5 percent Asian American. None have been Native American and fewer than one quarter have been women.

Each of the nine Justices is allowed up to four law clerks a year. These clerks review all cases brought before the Court and help decide which ones the Justices should hear. They often write the first drafts of the decisions. Thirty-four law clerks currently are serving, including 22 white men, 11 white women and one Hispanic woman. More than 40 percent of law school graduates now are women; nearly 20 percent are minorities.

"The law clerks serving the U.S. Supreme Court need to be much more reflective of the fabric of America," Dr. Powell said, who addressed the rally and offered the opening prayer. "The sensitivity of the Court has to go up on this issue. We’d be na´ve to expect a drastic change overnight, but I’d be very, very disappointed if I didn’t see an increase in the number of minority law clerks over the next several years."

This was Dr. Powell’s first arrest. "We got an opportunity while in jail to listen to ‘war stories’ of those who’d been on that path before," he said. "There are some causes that necessitate your putting yourself on the line to demonstrate your passion" – in this case, against "this kind of blatant racism."

"The NCC is an ally in this attempt to bring attention to this practice of prima facie discrimination," Dr. Powell said. "This issue does not simply impact the discipline of jurisprudence. Equally important is the erosion of the Biblical principle of justice. As people of faith, we are compelled to be prophetic in our call for justice. In the spirit of Amos, we implore the highest court in the land to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

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