Good questions

September 12, 1991

As the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court began this week, these thoughts occurred:

The 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, was just a year old when Clarence Thomas entered a segregated grade school in Georgia. Throughout the South there was fierce resistance to the Brown decision, with many state governors openly defying the law of the land. Whether desegregation could be accomplished was anything but a certainty.

At about the same time that Thomas was entering that segregated school, confirmation hearings were being held in Washington for a nominee to the Supreme Court, John M. Harlan. Suppose that the Brown decision, instead of being a unanimous decision, had been a close one -- say, a 5-to-4 decision.

Under those circumstances, would it not have been proper to insist upon knowing whether Judge Harlan would vote to uphold, or to overrule the Brown decision? Wouldn't Clarence Thomas, and millions of other black children in the segregated South, have been entitled to ask, "Would you, Judge Harlan, compel me to live a segregated life?"

Of course it would have been proper, and if Harlan had declined to answer, would not that have been a reasonable basis for a senator to vote against his confirmation?

Today, nearly 40 years later, there are millions of women to

whom the right of access to safe and legal abortions is no less important than the right to a discrimination-free society was to Clarence Thomas. Are they not entitled to ask, "Would you, Judge Thomas, compel me to have a baby that I did not wish to bear?"

Of course it is proper to ask Thomas if he would vote to maintain that right. And if he fails to respond in unequivocal terms, would that not be a reasonable basis for a senator to vote against his confirmation?

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