Paul Greenberg

It's getting harder and harder to tell the daily news from the daily crop of ironies. They grow identical. Consider:

A glance at this month's programs offered by the Clinton School of Public Service here in Little Rock lists an appearance by Polly J. Price, dean of faculty at Emory University's law school. She'll be discussing her fine new study of Richard S. Arnold's law and life, having been one of his law clerks (1989-91) when he served on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

That's Richard Sheppard Arnold, who was regularly described, like Learned Hand in another generation, as the greatest judge never to have served on the Supreme Court of the United States.

And, yes, the program is being presented at the school named for William J. Clinton, who among other things, will be remembered as the president who did not appoint the finest legal mind of his time to the United States Supreme Court.

I forget which of the mediocrities currently serving on the court Bill Clinton chose instead, and remember only the reason, or at least the excuse, for his not choosing Judge Arnold: the cancer that would eventually take the judge's life. But not for another ten years, during which he would serve with the greatest distinction on the appellate bench.

During that decade it regularly occurred to some of us that to have had just one year of Richard Arnold's remarkably clear jurisprudence on the U.S. Supreme Court would have been worth more than all the fuzzy ruminations handed down by any of his lessers now on that court.

But the opportunity was lost. This is what comes of a president's lacking the faith, hope and courage, not to mention judgment, to make the best appointment he could to the Supreme Court of the United States -- and Bill Clinton must have known who that best appointee was in 1994. Every knowledgeable legal scholar in the country did.

For who in American law had not heard of Richard Arnold? Even in his salad days at Yale and Harvard Law, where he was tops in his class again, the slight, gangly kid from Arkansas was something of a legend. Even then his reasoning was as clear as his penmanship, and as concise and unassuming. The whole course of American law might have been clarified and elevated had he served on the nation's highest court; the tragedy -- not for Richard Arnold but for the country -- is that we'll never know.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.