Senate to Begin Thomas Hearings for High Court Nominee Will Be Scrutinized on Such Issues as Abortion, Natural Law, and Legislative Intent

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CLARENCE THOMAS'S Supreme Court seat is his to lose.

That's the view of court-watchers, including some of the judge's liberal opponents, as President Bush's nominee begins confirmation hearings today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

With lingering memories of Judge Robert Bork's failure to gain confirmation four years ago, the Bush White House has left nothing to chance in the couple of months since the nomination.

"We're in good shape," says a White House official who has helped Judge Thomas prepare. "Of course, since Bork, no one's quite sure what the rules of the game are. But I'd say the mood at the White House is upbeat."

If Thomas is "aggressively uncooperative in answering questions on flash-point issues like abortion, it could backfire," says a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. "A lot depends on how senators are defining 'advice and consent.

Thomas's solid endorsement from Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri - a moderate Republican, longtime friend and one-time employer of Thomas, and point man on the civil rights bill - has helped smooth the image of this self-described conservative.

Some aspects of Thomas have made the pre-hearings period dicier than Supreme Court Justice David Souter's was last summer. Thomas has a livelier personal history and has published and spoken more in public than had Souter.

But the fact that Thomas is black has helped him. Opposition to his nomination has been slow to coalesce; one reason, say liberal activists, is that some people are reluctant to be seen opposing a black's rise to the high court.

Thomas also benefits from his frequent appearances before Congress, both in his confirmations to become head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a Washington, D.C., Circuit Court judge, as well as his 50-plus appearances testifying as EEOC chairman.

As part of his preparation for the next two weeks, the White House has staged mock confirmation hearings for Thomas, drilling him on some of the more controversial matters senators will raise, such as natural law.

And with Senator Danforth's help, Thomas has made courtesy calls on most senators.

Now that the hearings are starting, Thomas will be on his own. Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he will press Thomas on natural law, the legal philosophy that individuals have certain rights dictated by a higher order. Natural law has been interpreted in many ways, and Senator Biden says he wants to pin down Thomas's views on it.

A crucial related matter is abortion, an issue that the court will face in its fall session. …


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