Democrats Talk as if Court Seat for Thomas Is Assured

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, after a week in which he avoided stating rigid or provocative opinions, appeared Friday to be headed for endorsement by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats who early in the week had voiced irritation with President Bush's nominee toned down their questions during his fourth day of testimony and spoke as if his confirmation were all but assured.

"You're going to a place where you are going to change the world for a lot of people," Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) told the 43-year-old appeals court judge.

Committee members asked Thomas to return Monday for a final round of questions, but both Democratic committee members and White House advisers seemed to agree Friday afternoon that the nominee would win the panel's endorsement to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.

"The White House people are supremely confident they've already got him confirmed," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the sharpest questioners, said after Friday's session.

For their part, Thomas' advisers, including former White House Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein, were smiling but not proclaiming victory.

Even the President was exultant at Thomas' performance. "Now, the nation knows what I know: Clarence Thomas is a magnificent American," Bush said. "The hearings have revealed his warmth, his grace and his intellectual vitality."

Throughout the week, Thomas scored points by stressing personal attributes: his rise from poverty, the advice his grandfather gave him, his own promise to be fair and impartial. Despite the long days of testimony that his supporters called "grueling," Thomas remained calm and composed.

When pressed to explain the contradiction between provocative statements he had made in the past and his claim this week that he had "no ideology," the judge turned personal.

"I'm just Clarence Thomas," he said, "and I've tried to do what my grandfather said, 'Stand up for what you believe in.' The person you have before you today is the person who was in those Army fatigues and combat boots (as a college protester in the late 1960s) who has grown older, wiser, but no less concerned about the same problems."

Still, the reference to his grandfather's advice contained a touch of irony. Repeatedly, Thomas refused this week to defend statements that he had made in the past.

Four years ago, Judge Robert H. Bork went down to defeat after spending a week before the committee trying to defend 25 years of provocative speeches and law review articles. Though Thomas is far younger than Bork, he has already compiled a thick stack of speeches, mostly to conservative audiences during the 1980s.

But rather than defend his past statements, Thomas told the committee that his past comments do not necessarily represent his true views, or, in other instances, that his opinions would not affect his decisions as a judge.

For example, he had once complained about the "explosion of rights," citing "welfare rights, animal rights and children's rights."

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked him during the hearings which "children's rights" troubled him, Thomas said none. "Senator, I don't object to any rights," he said.

In several speeches, Thomas had said that a 1988 Supreme Court ruling upholding the legality of independent counsels--a decision that allowed the Iran-Contra investigation to proceed--was "the most important case since Brown vs. Board of Education," the landmark desegregation decision of 1954. When asked to explain that comment this week, Thomas backed away from it, saying it had been merely "rhetorical."

When asked about his 1987 comment that a controversial anti-abortion article was "splendid," Thomas disavowed the statement entirely, saying he "did not endorse" the article, nor had he even read it.

"You are somewhat of an enigma," said Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala), an undecided committee member, whose questioning of Thomas was decidely more gentle on Friday.

Among the eight committee Democrats, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona is considered nearly certain to vote for Thomas. He noted Friday that he saw a "great distinction" between Thomas and Bork.

Heflin is also believed to be leaning in favor of Thomas. While black voters in the South were united in their opposition to Bork in 1987 and pushed Democrats such as Heflin to vote "no" on his nomination, recent polls have found strong support for Thomas.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll taken just before the hearings opened found that blacks in the South said by nearly a 2-to-1 margin that Thomas should be confirmed. Southern whites supported Thomas by more than a 4-to-1 margin.

Still, not all the Democrats were ready to give up Friday. Several again expressed frustration with Thomas' refusal to answer their questions.

"You've answered even less than Judge (David H.) Souter," Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) complained to Thomas.

Last year, Souter, Bush's first court nominee, breezed through three days of hearings, giving thoughtful, if opaque, answers to the committee's questions. Thomas' no-comment strategy prompted the Democrats to continue questioning him on Monday.

Liberal legal activists seized on the judge's refusal to defend his own views as reason to block the nomination.

"Clarence Thomas' performance . . . has set a new standard for obfuscation and backtracking," said Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, which opposes Thomas. "His testimony is riddled with evasions, disavowals and inconsistencies."

At the same time, a conservative group, Concerned Women for America, denounced the committee Democrats for "continually hounding" Thomas on the abortion issue.

"Judge Thomas is an honest and qualified man who had overcome great prejudice throughout his life," said Beverly Haye, the group's president. "He should not now be forced to pass an ideological litmus test or to agree with a narrow political agenda."

While Thomas impressed the senators with his personal style, several said they were surprised and dismayed by his seeming inability to discuss legal principles in detail. He foundered Friday when asked to cite what he considered to be the most important Supreme Court rulings of the past 20 years.

After a long pause, Thomas said, "I would have to go back and give it some thought" in order to "give you a running list." He then mentioned two cases: Griggs vs. Duke Power, a key job discrimination ruling; and Roe vs. Wade .

"Are there some other cases that come to mind?," Sen. Leahy inquired further.

"I can't, off the top of my head," Thomas replied. "As you mention them, perhaps I could accord some weight to them, but just not off the top of my head."

After another pause, Thomas mentioned the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954.

Under questioning later by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Thomas said he had misunderstood the time frame called for in Leahy's question, thinking Leahy only wanted to hear about cases decided between 1971 and 1974 when the judge was at Yale Law School.

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