PERSPECTIVE ON THE SUPREME COURT : He’s Forgotten Where He’s From : Clarence Thomas would deny to others the kind of opportunities that he has enjoyed. He’s not suited for the court.

<i> Rep. John Lewis is a Democrat from Georgia</i>

I have found Judge Clarence Thomas to be a hard-working, articulate and likable individual. His rise from an impoverished early life to the highest positions in our federal government has been impressive. However, I have decided to oppose his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some have said, “Well, at least he’s black.” That’s not enough for me. He has got to be sensitive.

Some have asked, “If not him, who?” That, to me, is not the issue. I would oppose any court nominee who espouses the views that Thomas has espoused. The fact that any person nominated by President Bush is not likely to be someone I would endorse does not excuse me from my duty to express my opposition to such a nominee.


Some have said that those who oppose Thomas’ nomination are doing so just because he is a black conservative. I am not opposing Thomas’ nomination because of that. I am opposing him because he, like most of the black conservatives that I know, is a direct beneficiary of the civil-rights movement. The objective of that movement was to ensure equal opportunities for all Americans. Yet, Judge Thomas stands poised to deny to others the kind of opportunities that he has enjoyed.

Without the commitment of the federal government to equal-employment opportunities, there would not have been an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission for Clarence Thomas to chair and from which to catapult on his journey to Supreme Court nominee. But for the decision he calls “misguided,” Brown vs. Board of Education, and its progeny, there would not have been an opportunity for Clarence Thomas to pursue the successful career in law that he has had. Clarence Thomas would not be faced with the enormous opportunity--and responsibility--now before him but for the sensitivity that the Supreme Court once demonstrated. Without affirmative action at Yale University, Clarence Thomas would not have been able to go to law school there.

Of course, I have heard the argument that Clarence Thomas cannot “forget” where he has come from and, therefore, he will be sensitive to the plight of the disadvantaged. After all, he grew up poor and fatherless in segregated south Georgia.

My response to that argument is: Look at his record. He has forgotten before.

As chairman of the equal employment agency, he “forgot.” The EEOC is the federal agency charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of employees. Yet, as chairman, Thomas failed to enforce claims of more than 13,000 older workers. Instead, he let the statute of limitations run out. Those people lost their rights because Thomas forgot.

In some cases, Clarence Thomas did not sit on the rights of older Americans. Instead, he quashed them. For example, EEOC investigators found that the Clorox Co. engaged in a practice of targeting its older, higher-paid workers for termination and replacing them with younger, lower-paid workers. EEOC regulations state that economic necessity is not a legal justification for such a practice. What did Clarence Thomas say? “This is a standard practice in industry.” And, over his staff’s recommendation, Thomas decided not to pursue a case against Clorox.

Goals and timetables had been the EEOC’s most effective tools for remedying discrimination in the workplace. Under Thomas’ direction in 1985, the EEOC refused to include goals and timetables in proposals for settlement of EEOC complaints. It was not until the Supreme Court upheld the use of goals and timetables in 1986 that Thomas gave in. Obviously disappointed, he said, “the Supreme Court has ruled; and, so far as I am concerned, that is that.”


The Supreme Court has upheld the validity of programs designed to increase the participation of women in federal contracts. Thomas, however, has admonished the court for allowing gender-based remedies. He says he doesn’t like such remedies and would oppose programs designed to increase the participation of disadvantaged groups in the business world.

Thomas was so hostile to affirmative action that he decided to “expand the scope” of his position as EEOC chairman and make or change laws. In 1985, Thomas joined then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and his aide William Bradford Reynolds in seeking to have President Reagan repeal the executive order that requires federal contractors to have minority hiring goals and timetables. He failed, but only because opposition to Thomas’ plan prevailed.

We have a moral obligation to look closely at Clarence Thomas and his record. Once the people have looked at his record, I am sure that they will find, as I have, that Clarence Thomas is not suited to sit on the Supreme Court. Then, they, too, must let their opposition to Thomas’ nomination be known.