Tumult behind, Thomas to find haven in court community

October 20, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Clarence Thomas starts work at the Supreme Court, he probably will drive his own car, turn into the drive at the rear and get waved on into the garage by a smiling police officer. Just as if he had worked there for years. It is a place where a judge can work 30 or more years in genuine contentment, and get over -- perhaps quite quickly -- wounds and blisters suffered in the political process passed through on the way there.

The only real looking back that one needs to do is to the precedents, the guiding law of the past. Sometimes, even that can be forgotten.

However hurt or harried Justice-designate Thomas may be after his 107-day battle to win Senate approval, he will find himself at the court wrapped up in a supportive little community -- only 320 people, all counted -- that takes care of its own, knows how to disagree amiably even if the written words often ring angrily, and rallies around when ganged up on from the outside.

Judge Thomas would have seen just that last week if he could have paid attention to what was going on inside the Supreme Court building; his days, of course, were spent elsewhere in tumult, going from the pain of withering accusations in the Senate to the pomp of his own grand ceremony at the White House.

There were several episodes inside the marble temple across from the Capitol, each a telltale happening that reflected the norms of life there.

On Tuesday -- the day that Judge Thomas anxiously was awaiting the final Senate vote on his nomination -- the court assembled and called to its lectern William J. Brennan Jr. -- the 85-year-old former justice who retired last year.

He was there to ask the court formally to put his nephew, Robert F. Brennan of Los Angeles, on its roll of lawyers who practice there, along with two California friends, Stephen N. Cole of El Macero and Bret Culbreth of West Sacramento.

It was Mr. Brennan's first time back in any capacity other than interested spectator. Before he made his motion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist warmly greeted him and expressed his former colleagues' pleasure at his return. There was not a hint of the years of deep philosophical division between "the Chief" and Mr. Brennan.

The next day -- the one on which Judge Thomas could at last relax with the certainty that he would be a justice -- two other familiar figures strode to the court's lectern to ask for the admission of lawyers to the court bar. They were two combatants in the Thomas fight in the Senate -- Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., one of the nominee's most energetic backers, and Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., one of only two members of the GOP to vote against him.

The brief ritual passed without a public hint of the scorching battle that was now ended.

And, right after that, the court held a hearing on a case that affects women seeking abortions; there is no angrier issue before the court, and the justices are divided deeply along philosophical and -- at times -- emotional lines on it, as much of the rest of the country seems to be.

But, through an hour of civil discourse, with known antagonists on the court picking up on each other's points or questions, even at times seeming to support a view they probably do not hold, the intellectual battle went on with not the slightest hint of rancor.

Later that day, word would pass in the court's corridors that the chief's wife, known within the court as "Nan," was nearing death.

When the justices and staff returned to work the next day, Thursday, Mrs. Rehnquist had died, and the mood of mourning was palpable everywhere from the cafeteria line to the chambers upstairs.

While Judge Thomas on that day, Thursday, busied himself with the White House to plan his oath-taking, the court's members and staff awaited funeral plans. The two events got strangely mixed before that day was over: Court attaches and White House staffers, on the telephone, exchanged views about whether the new justice's oath ceremony should wait.

There were indications that, in those talks, it was suggested fairly subtly that the justices did not particularly like having to go out for a ceremony with the chief and the court in mourning, but neither were they prepared to stay away, giving offense to Judge Thomas.

At one point during the day, according to the White House, President Bush called Chief Justice Rehnquist. No one would say what they discussed. At the court, however, aides said they were sure that the chief would have made no effort to get the Thomas ceremony put off on his or his family's behalf.

"Too much a gentleman for that," remarked one aide.

The White House ceremony did occur Friday, with Justice Byron R. White standing in for the chief to administer Judge Thomas' constitutional oath. To the surprise of perhaps no one inside the courthouse, Justice White had barely begun his part in the ceremony when he mentioned "Nan" Rehnquist.

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