Thomas, in fourth day of questioning, gains confidence in his confirmation

September 14, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — An article on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly said that Rosa Parks was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955 for refusing to give her bus seat to a white man. In fact, she was arrested in Montgomery, Ala.

The Sun regrets the error.

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, emerging in a joyous mood from a Senate hearing room to make jokes, shake hands and sign autographs, appeared yesterday to be winning more than majority support in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and perhaps in the full Senate.

Although committee Democrats decided to call him back Monday for more questioning, the nominee began his weekend amid these favorable indications:

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

* Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., an undecided panel member believed to be leaning against Judge Thomas, said that he thought the final Senate vote "would go in [the nominee's] favor." He said that in the judge's performance this week, "his case was weakened somewhat" but not enough to deny him Senate approval.

* Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., an uncommitted panel member believed to reflect the thinking of moderate Democrats, told Judge Thomas that he had seen "great distinctions between you and Judge Bork" -- a reference to Robert H. Bork, the court nominee rejected in the last major confirmation fight, four years ago.

"You are very different in your philosophy and in your approach to the Constitution," the Arizona senator said. "So far as I'm concerned, that's very important to your confirmation process."

* Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., an undecided committee member considered representative of moderate Republicans, said he had found no "disqualifying characteristics" in the nominee. Although troubled by "inconsistencies" he saw between Judge Thomas' record and his testimony this week, Mr. Specter said he found nothing equal to the problems that cost Judge Bork the Senate's approval.

* Tough questioning that had been expected yesterday from two undecided Democrats on the panel, Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Howell Heflin of Alabama, did not materialize. The two seldom pressed the nominee for any follow-up to his answers. And Mr. Heflininvited him to talk at length about his youth, which White House aides consider one of the judge's stronger selling points.

* Bush administration aides patrolling the Senate corridors felt free for the first time to start talking of vote counts within the committee. They ridiculed opposition estimates that the committee might tie 7-7 and suggested that they were prepared to concede -- at this point -- no more than five unfavorable votes on the 14-member panel.

Yesterday brought one significant negative for the nominee, however: Rosa Parks, the heroine of the civil rights movement who refused in 1955 to give up her Birmingham bus seat to a white man, appeared in the hearing room as her associates passed out a statement urging senators to reject Judge Thomas' nomination for the Supreme Court seat held by Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While acknowledging that the black nominee had become a "remarkable success" after "raising himself up from humble beginnings," Ms. Parks, who now lives in Detroit, said that his confirmation "would not represent a step forward in the road to racial progress, but a U-turn on that road."

The Supreme Court, she said, already is "turning its back" on racial discrimination, and "Judge Thomas will accelerate that trend, and that will be destructive for our nation."

Judge Thomas continued to spar, in good humor, with Democratic senators throughout his fourth day in the witness chair. He frequently made funny remarks about his past and even suggested at one point that, in order to make the Supreme Court better known to Americans, "maybe we should give Chief Judge [William]Rehnquist his own sitcom."

He also sought, in serious tones, to deflect repeated suggestions -- by Democratic senators and liberal critics -- that he was remolding himself and altering his views to make his candidacy more acceptable.

Since his July 1 nomination, Judge Thomas said, "various individuals created their own images of me, and what they see [at the hearings] is that the real person doesn't fit those images. . . . I am the same Clarence Thomas."

In an otherwise friendly day of questioning, the nominee encountered pointed criticism for his performance only from committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del. After Judge Thomas resisted giving a direct answer to a question about which justice's approach to issues of religious freedom he would endorse, the chairman noted that last year's nominee -- Justice David H. Souter -- had replied to such a question, even though he answered few others about his views.

Now, Mr. Biden said, "we have a new standard, the 'Thomas standard,' " in which even fewer questions get answered directly.

Senators again failed to draw out Judge Thomas' views on abortion rights, but he did repeat his refusal to endorse a magazine article suggesting that all abortions are unconstitutional because fetuses have a right to life superior to any woman's right to terminate her pregnancy.

Although the White House had made clear its strong desire that the committee finish with the nominee yesterday, Democrats on the panel decided by midafternoon that they could not. Judge Thomas is scheduled to appear Monday morning, followed by a stream of witnesses for and against him. The hearings may run through next Friday.

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