The Senate Judiciary Committee's vote on...

LET'S PUT

September 28, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LET'S PUT the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote on confirming Judge Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice into historical perspective.

It almost always never turns 'em down. If the Guiness Book of Records had a list of "Biggest Rubber Stamps," it would rank the Judiciary Committee No. 1. The committee has voted on Supreme Court nominations 46 times and approved the nominee 44 times, almost always by wide margins.

I thought all along that the full Senate would approve Judge Thomas' nomination, but I'm glad I didn't bet on the margin. When he was first nominated, I figured he'd get 85-90 votes, maybe more. Now. . . ?

* * * This week was the tenth anniversary of the swearing-in of Sandra Day O'Connor as a justice. She said at the time that she hoped people would look back at her career after 10 years and approve. I doubt if the Senate is as approving of her now as it was then. The Judiciary Committee voted for her 17-0 and the full Senate voted for her 99-0.

That popular she's not. But she's pretty popular. She has proved to be as conservative as most judiciary-watchers predicted in 1981. This past term she voted with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, leader of the conservative bloc on the court, in 16 of 18 cases in which the issue was overturning a precedent of earlier liberal court majorities.

So conservatives love her. But because she has not joined the conservative bloc in its stated desire to overturn Roe vs. Wade, ++ Justice O'Connor also enjoys a good bit of support on the left.

Justice O'Connor may be the only Supreme Court nominee to testify under oath as to what she wanted her epitaph to be. "How do you want to be remembered?" a senator asked her. "Ah, the tombstone question," she replied. "I hope mine says, 'Here lies a good judge.'"

Then, realizing what was being decided, she quickly added, "I hope I am remembered as the first woman who served on the Supreme Court."

* * * Why did I think Thomas would get so many Senate votes? Look the record for the seven associate justices he will join on the court: Byron White, voice vote. Harry Blackmun, 94-0. John Paul Stevens, 98-0. O'Connor, see above. Antonin Scalia, 90-0. Anthony Kennedy, 97-0. David Souter, 90-9.

Who's missing here? Oh, Rehnquist. He's the exception to the rule. Fifty-six senators voted against confirming him.

"Hold the phone!" all you political science majors are saying. That's enough to reject a nomination! Nope. What happened was, the Senate voted for Rehnquist's nomination to be an associate justice in 1971, 68-26, and for his nomination to be chief justice in 1986, 65-33. On the two occasions 56 different senators voted nay.

Guess who the three senators are who voted against him twice. Here's a hint: among the three they have two full heads of hair and five arms.

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