The Gospel According to the ABA

August 30, 1991

Predictably and hypocritically, opponents and supporters of Judge Clarence Thomas have seized on the American Bar Association's evaluation of his fitness to be a Supreme Court justice as vindication of their positions.

The ABA's 15-member Standing Committee on the Judiciary gave Judge Thomas a "qualified" rating, with two members voting for "unqualified." No committee member rated him "highly qualified," which is the committee's only other category.

This suggests serious qualms on the part of the lawyers. Of the last 21 nominees to the Supreme Court, including three who were ultimately rejected by the Senate, none got so lukewarm a recommendation. All were judged to be "highly qualified" (or "highly acceptable" as the terminology used to be) by a majority if not by all standing committee members. Only two got "unqualified" votes. They were William Rehnquist and Robert Bork. The negative judgments in their cases may have been in part political rather than professional.

The immediate reaction to the ABA standing committee's evaluation of Judge Thomas was clearly hypocritical: Many conservatives now boasting of Judge Thomas' rating would probably say a "qualified" finding by the committee in the case of a liberal nominee would be cause for rejection; many liberals now saying the committee rating means Judge Thomas must not be confirmed would say just the opposite were he a liberal. Many of the groups already lined up for and against Judge Thomas are not interested in a great mind on the court; they are interested in a vote.

The ABA judgment appears to be a professional rather than a political one; the present standing committee membership is weighted toward conservatives. That Judge Thomas could not get a higher rating from this group is a cause for concern. After all, a lawyer named to the highest judicial position in the nation ought to have the highest professional standing among his legal peers.

But the committee's report by itself is not the same as a finding of disqualification -- or of qualification. It is not the gospel. Other groups have different -- and in some cases just as professional and non-political -- assessments. Fairness to Judge Thomas and to the process requires that senators and the public wait till all the evidence of the confirmation hearings has been presented. That will include, of course, the ABA committee chairman's testimony about the meaning of and reasoning behind that panel's judgment.

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