With apologies to the Gospel according to Matthew, we would alter the biblical injunction to say that in Clarence Thomas' case, he will be judged in history by the votes he casts and the opinions he writes in his new position as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
All that has gone before -- from his stirring rise from being born black and poor in segregated Georgia to the ugly confirmation process that cast doubt on his conduct and veracity -- will be overshadowed by what is to come. Justice Thomas is only 43 years old. His impact on American society could last two, three, even four decades.
Although the Supreme Court in its marbled setting gives an impression of dispassionate isolation, it is anything but. The nine black-robed figures are forced, day by day, to confront the most excruciating issues affecting the American people.
This is intellectual and emotional combat of the highest order, and no human being directly engaged can expect to emerge unchanged. Most justices perform roughly according to expectations. But there have been enough notable exceptions (Hugo Black, Earl Warren, Byron White) to justify reservations about Justice Thomas' future course.
As only the second African-American ever to sit on the high court, Mr. Thomas will take his place in a tribunal dominated by justices who were identified as conservatives when they were nominated and have generally lived up to early billing. The court has shifted so far to the right as a result of a Republican monopoly on appointments for the past 24 years that legal observers detect a 6-2 split among the eight holdovers. Only Justice White, a purported liberal turned conservative, was appointed by a Democratic president -- John F. Kennedy. The two moderates/liberals left on the bench, Justices John Paul Stevens and Harry A. Blackmun, were purported conservatives appointed by Presidents Nixon and Ford, respectively.
So Justice Thomas comes to his post, having succeeded the nation's first black (and liberal) justice, Thurgood Marshall, with little prospect of overturning the conservative majority even if he wants to. He has, however, an implicit mandate to bring to the court's deliberations the sensitivity of a person who has known discrimination, poverty and the wounds of racial slights -- experiences his colleagues can imagine only in the abstract.
No one, not even Justice Thomas himself, can predict how he will perform as he wrestles with the wrenching questions that by their very complexity reach the Supreme Court. President Bush describes him as "fiercely independent" while his detractors put him down as a doctrinaire conservative who rejects even the affirmative action policies that helped him in his own career. We shall see.
This newspaper, with misgivings, supported Justice Thomas' nomination. We did so in the hope that he will indeed be independent and will come to his legal opinions in the knowledge that he will be judged in the final reckoning by how he judges.