Sometimes, the best-qualified candidate isn’t the best choice for a job. Actually, that’s kind of an aphorism which serves my purpose, but isn’t really what I mean to say. More precisely, sometimes the individual with the best technical qualifications isn’t the best qualified candidate, because of non-technical qualifications.
Shortly after Justice Breyer announced his impending retirement from the Supreme Court, President Biden announced his intention to follow through on a key campaign promise: to bring a Black woman onto the court. This announcement was immediately met with howls of protest from right-leaning politicians and conservative news organizations, arguing that the “best qualified” couldn’t be predetermined to be a particular race or gender, and that this very intention was inherently racist, and constituted an affirmative action litmus test.
(Ironically, there were no such claims from Republicans when President Reagan in 1980 promised to appoint a woman to the Court, for the first time ever.)
I grew up opposed to affirmative action – pretty much every influential person in my life opposed it, so I did too. And I adopted their position and arguments as my own, without much question. In thinking through this issue recently, I’m not so sure it’s as simple as I believed. However, I don’t particularly want to discuss affirmative action here, although I happen to disagree that this could be called affirmative action. This really isn’t about who gets paid or promoted. It’s about who leads our nation.
But instead I want to talk about the term “best qualified.”
Back to my original simplistic statement – sometimes, the best-qualified candidate isn’t the best choice for a job. This will be obvious to anyone who has had to build a team or run a business. Sometimes, the person you really want for a job may not have the best technical skills for that job – but you want some OTHER aspects of their qualifications or personality or non-job skills or awareness. If they bring knowledge or experience that rounds out the team and helps create a better workspace for everyone, or tangibly results in a better product, that non-technical consideration may very well override the apparently better technical or scholastic qualifications of a competitor for the position.
Best-Qualified for the Supreme Court
With all of this in mind, since the day that Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer announced his impending retirement, I’ve been watching the fuss over President Biden’s explicit intention to appoint a Black woman as the next Supreme Court Justice. I heard cries of “That’s foolish! He’s arbitrarily limiting the field of candidates and may pick someone not as well qualified for the Court!”
And today, President Biden followed through and announced his choice for a judge to replace retiring Justice Breyer. He nominated Federal Appeals Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. She would not be the first Black Justice, nor the first woman, but liberals who use the tool of “intersectionality” would certainly understand the importance of this dual qualification.
To the charges of affirmative action and reverse racism instead of best qualified, perhaps the view of “best qualified” doesn’t include things that President Biden – and many others across the nation – consider absolutely essential qualifications. The President clearly believes that a Black woman brings a certain cultural experience to the bench that is currently lacking. She understands aspects of society that white men, or white women, or even Black men, do not understand as well. So in his estimation, someone with possibly better technical qualifications would not necessarily be the better qualified candidate after all.
If this bothers you, I ask: Would you have claimed that President Trump in only selecting a conservative originalist judge was artificially limiting the pool of available candidates? I think not. It was simply a President, with his privilege of nominating whoever he wishes to the High Court, intentionally selecting someone that would further his party’s long-term goals, and that includes any particular qualifications he chooses to apply to the selection process.
The only thing that was different here is that President Biden selected a very specific qualification that happens to be a trigger issue for many white Republicans, and announced it in advance. It’s not surprising that Republicans cried “foul!”
I would also observe that this argument sounds suspiciously like “Black people and women are not going to be as well qualified as white men” – it’s a thinly veiled dig at two entire groups of people. In fact, at least one conservative publicly said that President Biden’s criteria would require the selection of a “lesser Black woman” – at best an artless phrase, but also easily a very racist one.
So I’m fine with President Biden’s choice, and I’m not bothered that he chose from a limited pool of candidates. Whether or not you think Judge Jackson might be the best possible choice for purely technical reasons, the question put before the Senate is this: is she QUALIFIED, period? The Senate is not charged with determining if she is the BEST qualified – only whether she is adequate to the job. It’s solely the President’s choice of who is the best qualified, and in his mind, her social qualifications are clearly part of that overall decision. And this is utterly unsurprising. Any President’s decision for Supreme Court Justice includes assessing a jurist’s political views as part of the overall qualification – no President would ever appoint someone who opposed his political goals. The Senate cannot take away any President’s right to make that decision.
Affirmative Action Thoughts
Perhaps we can discuss, at some later date, the general topic of affirmative action. There are certainly situations where selection by race or gender is a bad idea, and will ultimately result in harm to individuals and society. But in other ways, I’m starting to believe that intentional composition of certain groups of people to be broadly representative of society is a good thing. If everyone in a school situation is white, for example, then the students don’t learn certain interpersonal skills that are valuable to functioning in a mixed society, going beyond the mere scholastic training. Any school generally pays attention to what it teaches its students about life in general, not just the classwork. There are downsides and challenges to affirmative action, of course, but the discussion deserves far more careful attention than I used to believe.
At any rate, in this case, the only person with the right to make a selection for the Supreme Court believed that our society will benefit from increased diversity, and he made his choice in accordance with that belief. And in this case, I happen to believe that qualifications for this job do go beyond merely job experience. This individual is one of nine who help guide our nation’s application of its laws, and will do so for dozens of years to come. What Judge Jackson knows about life, liberty, and society from her unique perspective and her personal experience definitely matters to our society, and should not be ignored in the hunt for Justice Breyer’s replacement.