Nominee has benefit of coaching White House handlers prime Judge Thomas.

September 09, 1991|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- When Judge Clarence Thomas faces a bank of television lights and the sober-faced members of the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow, the tone of his remarks and the details of his responses should be familiar to him and his White House handlers.

Thomas, President Bush's choice to succeed Thurgood Marshall the Supreme Court, has undergone an intense summer-long preparation for the confirmation hearings, including three mock sessions in which he has fielded aggressive questions from lawyers pretending to be senators on the committee.

The strategy that is likely to be unveiled at the hearings will have the judge emphasizing whenever he can his personal story of how he overcame a childhood of poverty in rural Georgia, while deflecting specifics about any cases that might come before the court on issues such as abortion.

Unless he stumbles badly in the hearings, most people who monitor the process expect Thomas to win confirmation as the 106th justice of the Supreme Court.

The practice sessions and the refining of the judge's responses are part of what the modern confirmation hearing has become, a venture resembling a full-throttle political campaign designed to win public opinion as much as anything else.

The process has come a long way from the day in 1939 when William O. Douglas waited patiently outside the Judiciary Committee room and sent in a message asking if there were any questions the members wanted to ask him, only to be told that there were not.

Today, there are high political stakes for the White House, the Senate and the advocacy groups that are lined up on both sides of the Thomas nomination.

But the deeper reason underlying the intense feeling behind the confirmation battle is that Thomas's nomination comes at a time when the Supreme Court has increasingly become the battleground for much of the nation's contentious social issues, especially abortion and racial preference programs.

At the same time, sustained Republican control of the White House has resulted in an ideological transformation at the court. The last time a Democratic president was able to choose someone for the Supreme Court was in 1967, when Lyndon B. Johnson picked Marshall.

As a result, the court has become more and more conservative.

Thomas, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is known principally as an outspoken black opponent of affirmative action programs.

Although he is not easy to pin down on some issues, he is widely expected to add to the conservative momentum of the court, and at age 44 he would be the youngest justice, giving him influence for decades to come.

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