For the two principal figures, pivotal day has finally arrived Thomas looking ahead to new court - or old one

October 15, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — 'TC WASHINGTON -- Not long after the sun goes down tonight, Judge Clarence Thomas symbolically faces one of two very short walks. Each is a journey of the heart and mind, either meaning just about everything to his future.

By 6:30 p.m. or thereabouts, his 107-day political trial will be over as the final Senate vote is announced by Vice President Dan Quayle.

It is a vote that will come after the ugliest fight over a Supreme Court nomination in 75 years -- since President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 nominated the first Jew, Louis D. Brandeis, to be a justice.

If the Senate vote on Judge Thomas' nomination is a "yes," he will make a symbolic crossing of First Street on Capitol Hill and become a justice of the Supreme Court, the 106th to wear the robes and wield the power of that place, and the second black to do so.

If the vote is "no," the judge told senators last Saturday afternoon, "I will simply walk down the Hill -- if I'm not confirmed, so be it -- and continue my job as a court of appeals judge" at the U.S. Courthouse on Third Street.

If he does make it across the street that marks the sometimes-wide constitutional divide between Congress and the Supreme Court, it would not be nearly as triumphant a crossing as it would have been just days ago -- a time when he had been all but certain of approval by a Senate majority of perhaps 60-40.

This proud, square-shouldered, 43-year-old man who had endured racism and grinding poverty as a boy in rural Georgia has now gone through nine scorching days of accusations that he used filthy language and smutty hints to a 25-year-old woman when she was his legal aide a decade ago in government -- "scurrilous lies," all of them, he insists.

"It did not happen," he said.

What may be as bad for him, emotionally, is that the Senate remains unclear about whether he did it.

But, hurt and humiliated though he says he is, he would go to the nation's highest court with the insulation of a lifetime job, the very real personal isolation and privacy that goes with that position, and the sympathetic support of colleagues who have some idea of what he has been through and who will want to help him get over it.

Every day of his life on that court, he would be able, if he wished, to stand at the top of the soaring marble steps and look across to the Capitol and not have to worry about what anyone over there thinks of him. Like any other justice, he would be safe except for an ultimate threat that has never been used successfully against a member of the court: impeachment.

But if tonight's Senate vote is "no," Judge Thomas' symbolic journey is almost sure to be as sad as it is poignant: down to the foot of Capitol Hill to resume the lifetime job he now has on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a job that he has largely put on "hold" all summer and fall.

In that job, he told the senators in quiet tones near the end of his hearing Saturday, "I can heal."

The main similarity between what Judge Thomas would do on that court and on the Supreme Court is that he would be more or less absorbed, every day, in a fast-paced dynamic of issues and ideas, with intellectually stimulating colleagues -- a job as stirring as any a judge could have -- except, perhaps, on the Supreme Court.

On the court of appeals, he would be returning to the seat he was named to fill after Judge Robert H. Bork quit the bench four years ago in a mood of anger and sorrow after the Senate defeated him as a Supreme Court nominee in a bruising but not nearly as profane a fight.

And Judge Thomas would resume his work on the bench, sometimes sitting beside Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, who chose to withdraw as a Supreme Court nominee rather than face what almost all of Washington thought would have been certain defeat by the Senate. Judge Ginsburg, chosen after Judge Bork's nomination had failed, had smoked marijuana as a law professor, and the expected fight over that indulgence had led him to bow out.

Like Mr. Bork, and unlike Judge Ginsburg, Judge Thomas has insisted that his nomination be put to a final vote of the Senate, up or down. "I would rather die than withdraw!" he said defiantly and in a public rage on Saturday.

He sounded as if he genuinely did not want the job any more, especially at "the price" he said he was being asked to pay. If President Bush asked him now to accept the nomination, he said, "I would refuse flatly. . . . It is not worth it."

Bitterly, he told Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., one of his supporters, "I would have hoped, senator, when I was nominated, that it would have been an occasion for joy. There has never been a single day of joy in this process. There was never one minute of joy in having been nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States of America."

He spoke that way in the 15th week of the battle over his nomination, a battle that has been waged continuously since July 1.

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