A private matter

October 25, 1991

Perhaps it was telling that Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court nominee whose confirmation hearings bumped the afternoon soaps, ended up taking the oath of office unannounced to the public, behind closed doors.

The private ceremony Wednesday was a marked contrast not only to the swearings-in of justices over the last five decades but, more important, to the persona of the man who first strode proudly into the Senate Judiciary hearing room last month amid lights and cameras, eager for public attention.

The turning point for Thomas apparently was the second round of hearings, in which the nation was captivated for days by lurid accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill. Thomas himself told committee members that the man whose nomination they had initially voted on was "dead" -- and that the justice who would sit on the court, if confirmed, was a man who had been transformed by the gut-wrenching experiences that followed the leak that made Hill's allegations public.

"I am not here to be further humiliated by this committee or anyone else," he told a jammed hearing room, "or to put my private life on display for prurient interests or other reasons. I will not allow this committee or anyone else to probe into my private life. This is not what America is about."

As Justice Thomas quietly takes his place on a conservative court, poised to consider a Pennsylvania law severely restricting a woman's right to control her own reproduction, we can only hope Thomas' second confirmation conversion has resulted, as he has hinted, in a new understanding of the vital role that privacy plays in a free society.

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