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Senate Opens Hearings on Thomas Today : Judiciary: Backers of Supreme Court nominee warn against seeking ‘advance promises’ on abortion, other issues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the eve of Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the White House and Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) insisted that Senate Democrats should not seek to “extract advance promises” from Thomas on how he will vote on charged issues such as abortion.

“We do not question judicial nominees about their positions on specific issues that may come before the courts and we expect the Senate would be no different,” White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Monday. He said the high court needs “open-minded individuals who have no prior commitments to us or the Congress on specific issues.”

Danforth, Thomas’ prime supporter in the Senate, separately denounced what he called “the let’s-make-a-deal mentality” whereby liberal senators say that they would vote for the nominee if he promised to uphold the right to abortion.

The comments clearly were intended to dampen enthusiasm among Senate Democrats for pressing Thomas on the abortion issue. On Sunday, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) had said that he wanted the 43-year-old black conservative to reveal his views on whether women have a constitutional right to abortion.

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“I don’t know where Judge Thomas stands on a woman’s right to choose” abortion, “but I intend to find out,” Metzenbaum said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin four days of hearings this morning on President Bush’s nominee to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall. While Thomas’ rise from poverty and his views on civil rights have drawn the most attention over the summer, Senate Democrats are expected to focus their sharpest questions on the issues of privacy and abortion.

Though Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush won election on a Republican Party platform that promised to pick judges who would protect “the sanctity of innocent human life,” officials of those Administrations have routinely denied that their Supreme Court nominees had pledged to oppose the right to abortion.

In the Reagan Administration, former officials said that this was true--at least in part. Neither Reagan nor his attorney general asked nominees such as Antonin Scalia or Anthony M. Kennedy for their views on abortion. However, they were selected from a list that contained only judges who could be trusted to oppose the Roe vs. Wade ruling.

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Danforth maintained Monday that he did not know Thomas’ views on the right to abortion.

“As far as I know, Clarence Thomas has never told anybody his view on Roe vs. Wade, even in private conversations with close friends,” Danforth said. “Clarence Thomas has never, ever taken a position one way or another on the abortion question.”

Asked what was the biggest misconception about Thomas, Danforth replied: “That he’s got his mind made up and that he’s some kind of right-wing extremist who had a precooked set of ideas which he is going to force on people.”

Meanwhile, President Bush acknowledged that “there’s a fight on” over his Supreme Court nominee, but added: “I’m confident we’re going to win it.” In a meeting with leaders of black colleges, Bush said he was “strongly committed” to his nominee and “very pleased” with the support he is receiving.

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The opponents, including leaders of major civil rights and abortion rights groups, are hoping that Thomas stumbles and raises questions in the minds of senators and television viewers across the country.

Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said that the fight against Thomas “is still winnable,” if the nominee is exposed as an extremist with “an awful public record.”

Today’s hearing is expected to start on a low-key note. The 14 members of the Judiciary Committee are allotted 10 minutes each to read opening statements. If they take up all of their time--as most are inclined to do--Thomas will not get a chance to speak until the middle of the afternoon.

Thomas Hearings on Television

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Event: Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court

Time: 7 a.m. PDT today

TV Channels: Cable News Network, C-SPAN, Court TV cable station, Public Broadcasting Service (delayed broadcast)


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