The Senate on Trial

October 09, 1991

More out of fear than conviction, the Senate postponed its scheduled vote yesterday evening on Judge Clarence Thomas' nomination to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court. It did so mainly for the sake of appearances, not in hope that there will be any real clarification of Professor Anita Hall's charge that Judge Thomas harassed her sexually some years ago -- a charge he denies.

The Senate made its decision, as Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass., among others, said in floor debate, because otherwise many Americans, especially women for obvious reasons, would believe the Senate did not take complaints of this sort seriously. "The Senate is on trial," Senator Kerry said.

The problem with having a new hearing, as Sen. John Danforth, R.-Mo., among others, said yesterday, is that it almost certainly cannot really settle things any more than they are presently settled. Professor Hill will testify that Judge Thomas behaved toward her in a way that constituted sexual harassment. He will ** testify that he did not.

At Judiciary Committee hearings starting Friday, some witnesses will testify that Mr. Thomas is not the kind of man to behave as charged. Some will testify that Professor Hill is not the kind of woman to make false accusations. That is already on the record, and has been fully debated on the Senate floor. In addition, the nominee will have the opportunity to confront his accuser -- and vice versa. Will this sort of thing convince senators more than what they already know has convinced them? Either way? Maybe, but we doubt it.

The stated reason why the Senate decided to hold these new hearings was to give Judge Thomas, at his request, a chance to clear his name and to let Professor Hill testify, as she has requested, now that she has been publicly identified.

Every now and then public opinion explodes in this country, and when it does Congress often over-reacts. In a democratic republic like this one, it is, of course, highly desirable that elected lawmakers be aware of and respond to the public, when it is aroused and when it is not. But the reason for a Senate in our scheme of things is that precisely at times of great public excitement there needs to be an institution that can deliberate and vote with calm -- without always putting a wetted finger into the air.

As reluctant endorsers of Judge Thomas' nomination (editorial, Sept. 22), we find ourselves more in agreement with his supporters than his critics about the way things have developed since Sunday. We probably would feel that way even if we were opposing his nomination. There is something rotten about the way this eleventh hour charge came to life. But since it has come to life, it has to be confronted lest both the Senate and the Supreme Court be unfairly tainted.

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