Thomas, amid pomp and sunshine, takes first of 2 court oaths

October 19, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Three days after his narrow confirmation by the Senate, Clarence Thomas tasted the victory yesterday at an unusual White House ceremony marking the first phase of his swearing-in as the 106th justice of the Supreme Court.

Associate Justice Byron R. White had barely finished administering the oath when Justice-designate Thomas flashed a thumbs-up signal to the 1,000 friends, supporters and Republican dignitaries he had insisted on including in a gathering so large it could only be accommodated outside on the White House South Lawn.

"There have been many difficult days as we all went through the confirmation battle, and I mean we all," Judge Thomas said, in his only reference to last weekend's hearings on sexual harassment charges that some had feared would prove his undoing.

During the hearings, he had told senators that contrary to his expectation, there had been no joy in his nomination since it was announced July 1. "But on this sunny day in October at the White House there is joy," he said yesterday. "Joy in the See THOMAS, 5A, Col. 1THOMAS, from 1Amorning."

There may have been a bit too much joy for some members of the nation's highest court, who court sources said had tried to dissuade the White House from holding the swearing-in ceremony while the justices are still in mourning over the death early Thursday of Natalie Rehnquist, wife of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

But White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the president was not aware that there were any ill feelings or that the court wanted the ceremony delayed. He said that Mr. Bush had spoken to the chief justice Thursday and that the subject had not come up.

In any case, yesterday's crowd -- which included several pro-Thomas witnesses from the hearings, his large family from Pin Point, Ga., and movie star Sylvester Stallone as a personal, last-minute guest of President Bush -- hooted and cheered in response to Judge Thomas' remarks.

A few minutes later, the justice-designate and his wife, Virginia, were mobbed by well-wishers on their open-air platform, and many of the other instant celebrities from the long hours of televised drama eagerly dispensed autographs.

"Isn't it a good show," said White House political director Ron Kaufman. "I think this event will do for last weekend's hearings what the Persian Gulf war did for the Vietnam War. The warmth of today will make the other feelings go away."

Yesterday's was the speediest swearing-in of any justice in a decade -- as well as the largest in memory -- but there was no rush about it, Mr. Fitzwater said. "We just chose a day that was good for us and good for Clarence and had good weather."

Although Justice White had to stand in for the chief justice yesterday, Chief Justice Rehnquist will administer the second oath to Judge Thomas at a court ceremony Nov. 1.

President Bush referred only in passing to Thurgood Marshall, whom Judge Thomas will replace.

Mr. Bush underscored, however, what many of Judge Thomas' critics feared, that the new justice is not likely to decide cases along the philosophical lines that might once have been expected of a black judge.

"I said when I nominated Clarence Thomas that this man is a fiercely independent thinker, with an excellent legal mind, who believes passionately in equal opportunity for all Americans," the president said. Since then, he added, the "whole nation has learned" that the source of these qualities is an "inner strength stamped on his character."

The new justice, who at 43 may have decades of service ahead of him, is widely credited with playing the most important role in saving his nomination. His fierce denials of the sexual harassment charges leveled by University of Oklahoma Professor Anita F. Hill and complaints of being racially stereotyped succeeded in putting the Senate Judiciary Committee on the defensive.

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