A look at the Judiciary Committee's questioners

October 14, 1991|By Washington Bureau of The Sun

Thumbnail sketches of Senate Judiciary Committee members who have conducted the questioning in the renewed hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas' nomination.

* Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del. 49 years old. Elected in 1979. A liberal known for both high intelligence and impetuousness. Regarded as a conciliator with a seductive personality.

Mr. Biden was once regarded as something of a show-horse, an overly handsome chatterbox with an affinity for TV cameras. But he has worked quietly and diligently as chairman of the Judiciary Committee since his abortive 1988 presidential campaign ended in humiliation amid charges that he had plagiarized parts of his speeches and a 1965 law school paper.

He is known to have an outstanding staff and to prepare assiduously for hearings. Although many colleagues believe he bungled the handling of Anita F. Hill's allegations against Judge Thomas, they consider him to have handled the hearings themselves with aplomb.

* Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah. 57 years old. Elected in 1976. Carries the banner for the New Right, yet manages to forge working alliances with such venerable liberals as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Once a prosecutor, now a Mormon bishop, he has a reputation as a prim moralist -- and a go-for-the-jugular politician.

On the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Hatch has become the prime advocate for Reagan and Bush administration judicial nominees, leading the charge for Judge Robert H. Bork. In his zeal, he can sometimes get ahead of the White House: He dumped on the Reagan administration when it forced Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg to withdraw after it was revealed he had smoked marijuana as a law professor; administration officials retaliated by cutting off his access to Mr. Reagan. All, however, was forgiven. Administration officials value Mr. Hatch's presence on the panel. He is a master of the softball inquiry -- and, for those who would challenge a nominee, the thrown dagger.

* Howell Heflin, D-Ala. 70 years old. Elected in 1978. A Southern moderate whose vote is wooed by liberals and conservatives seeking to build winning coalitions. Former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, present chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, a reputation for judiciousness and, perhaps inevitably, indecisiveness.

As a member of the congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Heflin appeared poised to inherit the mantle of the legendary Sam Ervin, hero of the 1973 Watergate hearings. Unfairly or not, Mr. Heflin came to be regarded instead as a backbencher.

Mr. Heflin has come under fire for his handling of the so-called Keating scandal entangling five senators in a favors-for-campaign contributions scheme. Critics charge that Mr. Heflin sought to minimize the seriousness of the charges against his colleagues and that the five therefore escaped relatively unscathed.

* Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. 51 years old. Elected in 1974. An activist liberal who has used his chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee to advance an agenda involving nutrition programs, the environment and rural development. Former prosecutor. Has carefully rebuilt a reputation seriously damaged after it was revealed that, as vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he leaked to a reporter a classified draft panel report about the Iran-contra affair.

Mr. Leahy opposed the Bork nomination, coining in the process the term "confirmation conversion" to describe what he believed were the nominee's last-minute renunciations of controversial beliefs formed over a lifetime. His questions were considered, after Mr. Specter's, to be among the most probing to be heard from the members of the Judiciary Committee. Because of his performance in the Bork hearings, he was said to have been the Democrats' first-choice interrogator for the present inquiry.

* Arlen Specter, R-Pa. 61 years old. Elected in 1980. One of two moderate Republicans in an otherwise conservative GOP lineup on the Judiciary Committee. Another former prosecutor, regarded as very tough, extremely smart, highly abrasive and, at times, a bit snide.

Mr. Specter made a name for himself in the 1987 debate over Judge Robert H. Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. During the judiciary panel's hearings, he became one of Judge Bork's most relentless interrogators, establishing himself as one of the few lawmakers with the intellectual candlepower to challenge that particular nominee. Eventually, "with great reluctance," he joined a Senate majority against the judge. His support for Judge Thomas has thus carried weight among fence-sitters in the Republican and Democratic ranks.

* Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. 89 years old. Elected in 1954. Decorous, chivalrous embodiment of the Old South. A former segregationist who has accommodated himself to the realities of the modern era, a political conservative who prides himself on being a pragmatist.

Mr. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist ticket and later bolted the Democratic Party for the GOP because, he said, the Democrats were "leading the evolution of our nation to a socialist dictatorship." In his war against the civil rights legislation of the '60s, he led some of the most indefatigable filibusters in Senate history.

But Mr. Thurmond, the body's most senior member, has managed to win respect from colleagues. In recent years, as both chairman and, now, ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has made no attempt to block the kinds of bills emerging from his panel that once he considered an anathema.

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