Thomas joins court nine days early, taking his oath in private 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 nine days more 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, repeating the oath in a ritual that 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 his duties 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 wasn't announced by the court's press officer, Toni House, until it was over.

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.

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.

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