Justice Thomas paying dues as most junior member

November 05, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- At $153,600 a year, Clarence Thomas surely is Washington's most overpaid secretary, messenger and doorkeeper. But that is not all he does to earn that kind of money.

Justice Thomas, of course, sits on the Supreme Court, and the six-figure salary is that high primarily to pay him for doing judge's work.

But as the junior justice, he does more for his money than seven of his colleagues -- all but Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who gets an extra $7,000 a year for the special jobs that go with being the chief.

Justice Thomas, carrying on tradition, has a variety of tasks that fall only to him just because he is the most recent addition to the bench.

The public can always determine who is the lowest ranking justice: He or she is the one sitting at the far right side of the bench, as the audience faces it. When a higher ranking justice departs, everyone shifts to a next "higher" seat. When Justice Thurgood Marshall retired last June, that opened up the lowest-ranking seat, not Justice Marshall's place next to the chief justice. The Marshall seat is now occupied by Justice Harry A.Blackmun, second in length of service. Sitting on the other side of the chief is Justice Byron R. White, first in length of service.

Justice David H. Souter, who became junior justice last year, gave up the lowest seniority spot to Justice Thomas, who was in that place yesterday for his first round of public hearings in pending cases since formally joining the court last month.

Justice Thomas did his biggest extra chore last Friday, in private. It is part of his responsibility, on three Fridays out of four during most of the court term, to serve as the court's secretary, messenger and doorkeeper during its weekly private conference.

Unlike other arms of the government, the Supreme Court gathers for its hardest working sessions -- at those conferences -- with no staff aides or secretaries. Only the justices attend the closed-door meeting at which all kinds of court business get discussed and settled.

If anyone knocks at the door, Justice Thomas is to answer. If a message has to go out, he is to carry it. And, all the while, he is supposed to be jotting down notes on the actions he and his colleagues are taking, marking up his "conference list" of new cases or writing notes to execute non-case actions of the conference.

When it is all over, he gathers with as many as seven court staff officers to fill them in on what orders or actions have to be issued. If he gets it wrong, as some junior justices infrequently have, the court has to put out a public correction. If the report he gives is unclear, aides go to him for clarification.

That secretarial chore has been a duty of the junior justice since 1972. Former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, casting off something that the chief justice had done himself -- apparently for generations -- assigned the task to the newest justice.

The role of conference doorkeeper and messenger has been the lot of the junior justice for more years than current court aides say they remember.

This being November, Justice Thomas also has to start thinking about one other special assignment -- one requiring its own kind of tact and diplomacy.

It is his job to plan the Christmas party the court gives. That function is different from the conference: All the court's staff gets to come. But the party, too, is an insider's event; the public and the press are not invited.

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