Thomas joins court early in secret ceremony

October 24, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Clarence Thomas became a full-fledged justice of the Supreme Court yesterday in an unannounced, private oath-taking ceremony that he had requested personally just hours before.

Rather than waiting another eight days for a public ceremony that would follow the tradition of the past 50 years, Justice Thomas gained the full powers of a justice when -- with no advance public notice -- he took the judicial oath required by law at 12:05 p.m. yesterday.

The court had planned a traditional oath-taking ceremony Nov. 1 and will go ahead with that ceremony, merely repeating the oath in a ritual that now will have no formal legal meaning.

Justice Thomas went on the court's payroll -- at a salary of $153,600 a year -- after yesterday's ceremony.

Not since 1941 has a new justice formally gained the authority to begin performing the duties of the office in a private ceremony. Court aides said it last happened 50 years ago, when Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, took his oath to become chief justice.

Justice Thomas, before he won Senate approval last week on a 52-48 vote, was embroiled in a bitter controversy stirred up by accusations of sexual harassment made by a woman who worked for him in the government nearly a decade ago.

Senate aides and lobbyists who worked on the Thomas nomination said yesterday that they had been besieged by new inquiries from the news media about Justice Thomas.

But White House officials denied suggestions that they had been worried about the possibility of new disclosures before the justice-designate joined the court. In fact, White House

spokeswoman Judy Smith said she was unaware of the oath-taking until after it happened.

Justice Thomas called Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday morning to ask that his oath be administered promptly, and that led to the midday ceremony in the court's private conference room.

The ceremony was attended only by the chief justice, Justice Thomas' wife, Virginia, Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who was the justice's main supporter in the Senate, and the chief justice's administrative assistant, Robb Jones.

Only a few court aides were told of the ceremony beforehand, and it was announced by the court's press officer, Toni House, only after it was over. By midafternoon, staff members throughout the court building still had not heard of the ceremony.

Justice Thomas asked for the early oath-taking because he wanted to have his three law clerks and two secretaries put on the payroll promptly, Ms. House said. The new justice made yesterday his first day of work at the court.

Mr. Danforth said through a spokesman that he regarded the ceremony yesterday as a mere "formality," the timing of which was aimed simply at enabling the justice and his staff to begin doing their work at the court. The senator's office said the oath-taking had nothing to do with any renewed investigations by the news media and said it had heard of no such inquiries.

There was no court business that required Justice Thomas to take his oath yesterday rather than waiting until Nov. 1, court sources said. The justices will not meet in private againuntil that date, and their next public session is Nov. 4.

Justice Thomas could have prepared himself by beginning to study pending cases even without taking the final oath, the sources said, but could not have taken final actions as a justice without repeating the judicial oath, in which he vowed to "administer justice without respect to persons."

To become a justice after Senate approval, a nominee to the court must get a presidentially signed commission and take two oaths. Justice Thomas got his commission from President Bush on Friday and took his first oath, required by the Constitution, during a crowded, unprecedented celebration and party at the White House.

At that time, White House aides said the Friday ceremonies would make the justice-designate a full-fledged justice. In fact, White House lawyer Lee Lieberman had done legal research that was thought to have supported that point, and those findings were passed on to reporters Friday.

But during the actual ceremony on the White House South Lawn, Justice Byron R. White, who gave Justice Thomas the oath, reminded him that he would not become a member of the court until taking the second oath, scheduled for Nov. 1. That made it clear that Judge Thomas would not become Justice Thomas without taking the final oath specified by a 1789 federal law.

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