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Thomas Rated ‘Qualified’ for Court by ABA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Bar Assn. on Tuesday gave Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas a passing grade of “qualified,” but the endorsement fell short of the “well-qualified” ratings received by other recent high court nominees.

The evaluation by the nation’s premier legal organization, whose judgment is considered an important indicator of a nominee’s credentials, is the same ABA rating that Thomas received when he was appointed as a federal appeals court judge in 1989.

In a letter to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ABA’s screening committee said that “a substantial majority” of its 15 members approved Thomas as qualified, although two members judged him to be “not qualified.” It was understood that one or more members abstained from voting.

The committee, headed by Los Angeles attorney Ronald L. Olson, did not explain the reasons for the rating or identify how individual members voted. But the ABA said the committee’s judgment was based on “extensive interviews” with lawyers and judges around the country and was not based on ideological considerations.

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The White House, welcoming the rating, said it shows that Thomas “has excelled in everything he has attempted.” In a statement, Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said President Bush “is confident that Judge Thomas will serve on the court with distinction.”

In evaluating prospective jurists, the ABA can assign one of three ratings: well qualified, qualified or not qualified. The mid-level rating received by Thomas contrasts with the well-qualified ratings given to all Supreme Court nominees confirmed by the Senate in recent years.

Thomas, 43, a conservative black judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has drawn opposition from civil rights groups, including the NAACP, and from women’s rights organizations.

Critics have attacked Thomas for his opposition to affirmative action programs and have charged that he was lax in enforcing anti-discrimination laws as head of the EEOC. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on his nomination are scheduled to begin Sept. 10.

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Biden declined to comment on the ABA rating. But Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’ chief sponsor in the Senate and a former employer, called the rating “a further step toward his confirmation.”

Danforth said the ABA’s judgment “certainly is consistent with the very positive impression he has made among senators” and is “especially strong given his age and relatively brief service on the bench.”

Danforth said that “some very highly regarded justices have come to the Supreme Court with no prior judicial experience.”

But the Alliance for Justice, an umbrella group of consumer and environmental law advocates that often espouses liberal causes, charged that “the country and the court deserve better than minimally qualified justices.”

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The organization noted that Justices David H. Souter, Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, all conservatives confirmed in recent years, all received well-qualified ratings without dissent from the ABA. The last high court nominee to receive a simple qualfied rating was Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981.

The Women’s Legal Defense Fund issued a statement saying: “Clearly the ABA’s lukewarm endorsement, coupled with the minority finding of ‘unqualified,’ indicates that Judge Thomas is the wrong man for the job.”

An ABA spokesman said a rating of well qualified represents “the committee’s strongest affirmative endorsement.” A rating of qualified means that the nominee “meets the committee’s very high standards with respect to integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament and will be able to perform satisfactorily all of the responsibilities required by the high office.”

Some legal experts said the ABA rating would neither help nor harm Thomas significantly in his confirmation battle. His advocates are likely to cast it as an endorsement of his credentials, despite his short tenure on the federal bench, whereas opponents would picture it as “damning with faint praise,” in the words of one authority who requested anonymity.

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One ABA source noted that Robert H. Bork, who was defeated as former President Ronald Reagan’s nominee in 1987, had been judged well qualified by a majority of the ABA committee but had been found unqualified by four members--twice as many as voted against Thomas.


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