Wapner For Supreme Court?

Posted: March 30, 1993

More than a week has passed since it was learned there would be an imminent opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, and America's best-known judge has yet to hear from America's best-known saxophone player.

"I'm not a confidant of the president, even though I did go to the inauguration," said Joseph A. Wapner, who presides over TV's "The People's Court." "I don't know him. I've never met him. I don't know how he thinks about the Supreme Court. I'm hopeful about his appointment, but I don't know any more than you."

So, the question begs, why not Wapner? "That's almost ludicrous," Wapner said. "There's no way it's going to be considered, so why even talk about it? I don't think about it or talk about it, and my best and closest friends wouldn't talk about it. You have to be a realist in this world. It's just not going to happen."

For one thing, Wapner thinks he's probably too old. He's in great shape and still looks good in a black robe, but he's 73. Clinton is likely to pick someone at least 15 years younger, possibly a woman and/or a minority.

"What I would like to see on the Supreme Court is someone with a great deal of integrity, someone who is independent, someone who is a thinker, someone who is a scholar," said Wapner, a decorated World War II veteran and 1948 graduate of the USC Law School who spent 18 years as a California Superior Court judge and two years hearing cases in Municipal Court before that.

"The Supreme Court takes a different kind of talent than a trial judge. You have to be able to analyze and be able to write and communicate clearly what is intended and what the law is."

Sounds like Wapner. And, the truth is, he is going to have some spare time soon. "The People's Court" wraps production on its 12th and final season in two weeks. After more than 5,000 disputes, there are enough on tape to rerun well into the next millennium.

"It has been fun," Wapner said. "It's been great exposure. I've had a good time doing it, and I'm very grateful because I think a lot of people have become educated because of the program."

The U.S. Supreme Court, he believes, is missing a tremendous educational opportunity by not televising its proceedings in the way he has opened his own courtroom to cameras. It would demystify the legal process. Wapner suggested this once to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. "I've talked to him about it personally," Wapner said. "But he says this is the province of the chief justice and our chief justice doesn't want it."

Maybe that's why a Washington Post poll found that less than 10 percent of the nation could identify Chief Justice William Rehnquist while more than 50 percent recognized Judge Wapner.

"You just don't know," Wapner said of the court selection process. "In a way, it's a crapshoot. As the appointing power, you do the best you can by evaluating and looking into the background of the person and you hope you get the kind of person you want, but there are no guarantees."

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