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James Clayton dies; helped halt Supreme Court nominee

James E. Clayton with former child actress-turned-diplomat Shirley

James E. Clayton with former child actress-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple in 1971. Credit: Family photo

James E. Clayton, a judge’s son who in 1960 became The Washington Post’s first full-time U.S. Supreme Court reporter and later wrote stinging editorials that helped deny federal judge G. Harrold Carswell a seat on the high court in part because of his troubling record on civil rights, died Oct. 16 at a hospital in Arlington, Virginia. He was 87.

He had heart and lung ailments, said his son David Clayton. He was an Arlington resident.

According to an official history of The Post, publisher Philip L. Graham — a Harvard Law School graduate who had clerked for two Supreme Court justices — fielded constant complaints about the newspaper’s reporting on the high court. It was inconsistent, at best.

Seeking a full-time beat writer, the newspaper’s editors tapped Clayton. After being hired onto the local desk in 1956, he had won awards for his coverage of Washington, D.C.’s judicial system and had periodically written about Supreme Court rulings. In 1960, The Post sent Clayton to Harvard Law School for a six-month primer on constitutional law.

Over the next four years that he covered the high court, the local Newspaper Guild and the American Bar Association honored him for his penetrating coverage of rulings regarding legislative apportionment, school prayer and the right to counsel.

He wrote a critically acclaimed book, “The Making of Justice: The Supreme Court in Action” (1964), that distilled the rulings from the 1962-63 docket. Clayton described in layman’s terms how the cases wound their way through the courts, and he illuminated the legal rituals and other forces at work behind the scenes.

“We see not black robes but men in the flesh, laboring not only with intellect but with feeling, and sometimes with passion, toward balanced reconciliation of competing values,” Columbia University law professor Louis Lusky wrote in a New York Times review. “We see the intense pragmatism . . . with which the Justices and counsel probe for the practical consequences of one position or another.”

“Because of the insight it affords into the least understood of our major government organs,” Lusky concluded, “the book must be recognized as a near approach to the pinnacle of the journalists’s art.”

Clayton, who had also written about civil rights in the Deep South and NASA lunar expeditions, soon began writing for The Post’s editorial page. His most distinguished work focused on Carswell, lambasting his legal record and personal judgment and denouncing his suitability for the most powerful court in the land.

The seat on the high court had been vacated in 1969 after Associate Justice Abe Fortas had been forced to resign amid accusations of financial impropriety, including the acceptance of a secret retainer of $20,000 from a foundation tied to a Wall Street financier convicted of securities violations.

President Richard M. Nixon’s first nominee, federal judge Clement F. Haynsworth Jr., was rejected by the Senate, by a 55-45 vote, after protests from labor and civil rights groups on his legal record.

Nixon next proposed Carswell, another conservative Southerner, who sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Reporters uncovered old speeches in which Carswell promoted segregation and white supremacist views and noted his ownership and sale of land in Florida with a “whites only” covenant. Women’s activists highlighted what appeared to be his unsympathetic views toward female litigants. Legal peers also questioned his qualifications and noted his inordinately frequent reversals by higher courts.

Clayton forcefully marshaled all the information and presented it in compelling commentaries that had a major political impact.

“The evidence in this case is so strong, the record so clear that there should not be the slightest qualms in the Senate about rejecting this nomination outright,” Clayton wrote in one editorial. In other, he added: “To confirm him would be to send yet one more signal of indifference at best, and contempt at worst, not just for minorities already short on hope, but for values and institutions which are in urgent need of more, not less, respect.”

Clayton’s editorials won two prestigious journalism honors, the Worth Bingham Prize and the George Polk Memorial Award. His citation for the second cited “editorials that vigorously alerted the U.S. Senate to the full record and meaning of G. Harrold Carswell, and drastically influencing its vote on his nomination.”

Vice President Spiro T. Agnew assailed the “liberal media” for Carswell’s defeat in the Senate, on a vote of 51-45, which marked the first time since 1894 that two Supreme Court nominees had been rejected for a single seat. In May 1970, federal judge Harry A. Blackmun of Minnesota was confirmed by the Senate without opposition.

James Edwin Clayton, whose father was a city court judge, was born in Johnston City, Illinois, on Nov. 14, 1929. After Army service during the Korean War, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1953 and received a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton University in 1956.

In 1961, he married Elise Heinz, a Harvard Law School graduate, Equal Rights Amendment lobbyist and two-term Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates. She died in 2014. Survivors include two sons, Jonathan Clayton of Houston and David Clayton of Alexandria, Virginia; and four granddaughters.

At The Post, Clayton had a brief stint as assistant managing editor for sports and then held the title of associate editor, writing for the editorial page, from 1974 to 1982. He also edited “The Rights of Free Men” (1983), a collection of editorials by the late Alan Barth of The Post. He served on the board of the American College of Sofia, a high school in Bulgaria where he had family ties.

But it was the Carswell firestorm that remained his most enduring legacy. Clayton was among the prominent voices thundering about the judge’s inadequacy, which provoked a backlash from some conservatives. Sen. Roman L. Hruska (R-Neb.) rose to Carswell’s defense with a memorable line of reasoning.

“Even if he were mediocre,” Hruska maintained, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

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