Thomas Carries Stigma of Doubt to High Court Americans Wonder If His Confirmation Hearings Uncovered the Truth

By Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 17, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Thomas Carries Stigma of Doubt to High Court Americans Wonder If His Confirmation Hearings Uncovered the Truth


Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ANY day now, Clarence Thomas will assume the robes of an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court and take his seat behind the bench, where he will likely sit for well over a generation.

Seldom, possibly never, has a justice been seated under such intense and pervasive public scrutiny and under such a cloud of misgivings.

Some of the discontent is directed not at Judge Thomas but at the confirmation process itself.

Several suggestions have come forward to make confirmation proceedings more orderly and rational - and less like a no-holds-barred political campaign.

But many experts doubt the political will to change a process that has, after all, been a practical success for conservatives.

Thomas's 52-to-48 confirmation vote in the Senate was the closest in memory. And some of those senators who voted for him expressed great reluctance.

"I intend to vote for confirmation but without enthusiasm," said Sen. James Exon (D) of Nebraska before the vote on Tuesday. "Unfortunately, in my view, the hearings have not provided any overall conclusive facts or definite truth."

About half the country sided with Thomas in his credibility contest with Anita Hill, the Oklahoma law professor who accused the judge of sexually harassing her 10 years ago. About a quarter did not.

"I have been troubled by the allegations," Sen. Richard Shelby (D) of Alabama told a network interviewer before the vote, but he opted to give Thomas the benefit of the doubt. Several other Democrats made the same grudging choice.

The confirmation process itself has drawn much of the heat for the past week.

Before a leak to the press forced Professor Hill's allegations of sexual harassment into the open, the Thomas hearings were widely considered a failed effort by Democratic senators to draw out his judicial philosophy.

After Hill's charges came to dominate the proceedings, Thomas himself bitterly complained about his ordeal and what it cost his reputation. His supporters railed against the press leak that was timed so deftly to attempt to derail his confirmation.

Citizen-viewers complained that the graphic remarks attributed to Thomas by Hill were spilling into their living rooms during prime time and morning cartoon hours.

Hill's supporters blasted the Senate Judiciary Committee for failing to aggressively investigate her charges when they first arose. They bemoaned Republican tactics in attacking Hill's credibility and Democratic passivity in failing to closely cross-examine Thomas.

"At a minimum," says political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas, "the nature and character of these proceedings have taken the quality of a campaign." And as in modern campaigns, he adds, both sides became "tawdry and mean."

"We've gotten into a situation in which each side is desperate for victory and distrustful of the other side," says Dr. Buchanan. "So you get a kind of political arms race."

One proposal that several prominent law professors have espoused for reining in the politicking over Supreme Court appointments is for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the White House to draft a mutually acceptable slate of candidates for the White House to nominate from.

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