Federal judge Bill Pryor, once considered a prime candidate to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), has hired a law clerk who has expressed a hatred for black people. The story originated with the widely read blog Above the Law, and al.com columnist Kyle Whitmire deserves props for breaking it on Pryor's home turf in Alabama. Writes Whitmire, under the headline "What have you done, Bill Pryor?"
When I called the former Alabama Attorney General, now the chief judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, he made it quickly clear he wouldn’t have anything to say on the record about his new law clerk.
That’s a shame. Because he needs to explain.
Last week, the legal blog Above the Law first reported Pryor’s new hire. The headline did most of the talking. “Law School Student Famous For Saying ‘I HATE BLACK PEOPLE’ Now Has Prestigious Federal Clerkship.”
It is a shame that Pryor does not feel the need to answer questions about such a hire, but that has been his standard reaction when faced with news coverage that likely makes him uncomfortable. That was his tactic when Legal Schnauzer exposed his ties to 1990s gay pornography at badpuppy.com. On that occasion, Pryor at least trotted out a former law clerk to issue a statement on his behalf. This time, he is in full lockdown mode, perhaps because he knows this is an even bigger embarrassment for federal courts than the gay-porn story -- absolutely calling into question whether his judgment is suitable for a spot on the federal bench.
Perhaps this latest episode should not be a surprise, given that Pryor is an acolyte of former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who was denied a federal judgeship because of alleged racist statements from his past. How bad does this look for the 11th Circuit, and the three states (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) it covers? It looks dreadful, even for a court with a history of issuing rulings that run contrary to governing law, including its own, and SCOTUS, precedent. Why does Pryor's latest gaffe matter -- a lot? Kyle Whitmire does a nice job of explaining:
For starters, the new clerk in question isn’t just some law school student. Her name is Crystal Clanton, and she used to be the national field director for Turning Point USA, a controversial activist group for conservative youth, led by Charlie Kirk.
Four years ago, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer looked at how Turning Point was having problems with racial bias within its ranks. It was in that story that Mayer reported the text message that made Clanton famous, from screenshots provided to her by a source.
“i hate black people. Like fuck them all ... I hate blacks. End of story,” Mayer reported one of the texts saying.
Clanton told Mayer she didn’t remember the text message and that it didn’t reflect who she was.
Kirk said the situation had been dealt with after he had become aware of it.
“Turning Point assessed the situation and took decisive action within 72 hours of being made aware of the issue,” said Kirk, the Turning Point leader who has since come under attack for calling George Floyd a “scumbag.”
What that decisive action had been Kirk, didn’t say, but Clanton left Turning Point at the same time.
Not long after her departure from Turning Point, Clanton went to work for Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It was a friendship and connection that began before she left Turning Point, and former Turning Point employees complained to Mayer that it created conflicts for the organization.
In other words, racism creates problems for those on the right. Now, Bill Pryor has allowed this ugly story to get even uglier. And Pryor is not the story's only tie to Alabama. Writes Whitmire:
Since then, Clanton has attended the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. She will then clerk in Birmingham for U.S. District Judge Corey Maze, a Trump appointee previously hired by Pryor in the Alabama Attorney General’s office. After that she will clerk for Pryor.
Here’s the thing. I don’t especially believe in cancel culture, especially for the young. It’s entirely possible that someone weaponized Clanton’s worst moment against her to even a score. Maybe she’s changed. Maybe she’s learned. Maybe her talents are so tremendous they outshine a youthful mistake. All that’s possible, and I told Judge Pryor to give her my number since I didn’t have hers. I’d like to hear her story.
But this isn’t about Clanton. This is about Judge Pryor.
And it’s about the system he and Clanton inhabit.
In short, Pryor and Maze have opened a cornucopia of career opportunities for a young woman who has expressed hatred for a significant chunk of the U.S. population. And that is particularly troubling when you consider a major portion of cases heard in federal courts involve civil rights, such as claims of employment discrimination and police misconduct -- both of which often involve black people as victims. As a law clerk, Clanton will not be a mere bystander, as Whitmire notes:
Clerkships for federal judges aren’t coffee-fetching internships for resume padding. They are launchpads for legal careers — shortcuts into ivory tower law firms, stepping stones that can lead to the bench itself one day.
It’s a gateway. Pryor is a gatekeeper. And when you let one person through that gate, you inevitably leave someone else locked on the outside. There are thousands of well-qualified candidates for a job like that every year.
And Pryor picked the one with at least one documented instance of saying racist stuff.
The story here isn’t about what Clanton did or didn’t say in a text. It’s about what her hire says to all those folks left on the other side of the gate. That it’s all about who you know, not what you know. That knowing the right people or going to the right law school means more than what comes up when someone Googles your name.
Perhaps most important for an appellate court judge, it’s about who gets second chances.
As a name on every Republican president’s shortlist for the U.S. Supreme Court, Pryor needs to explain. Perhaps, one day, a U.S. Senator will ask him to answer these questions.
For now, his silence will have to speak for him.