The New Justice

November 18, 1991

We have long advocated more public awareness of the Supreme Court's members and activities. We have urged justices to speak out more about legal affairs in speeches to public groups and in interviews. We have supported broadcasting oral arguments before the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist has made some modest gestures in this direction, after years of absolute refusal by his predecessor, Warren Burger, to consider more openness, refusing even to make public speeches if television cameras were present.

We agree with what Sun Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston wrote last year: "public acceptance of what they [justices] do might be more likely if more of the public thought of them as flesh-and-blood human beings."

Yet we have to say that we do not believe Justice Clarence Thomas' or the Supreme Court's or the nation's interests are particularly well served by the recent People magazine article written by Virginia Thomas about Justice Thomas' ordeal before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mrs. Thomas presented her husband as a flesh-and-blood human being, all right, but she went beyond describing his agony to making this disturbing comment: "Clarence will give everyone a fair day in court, but I feel he doesn't owe any of the groups who opposed him anything." Even with its opening clause, that sentence suggests that Justice Thomas either might carry a grudge or otherwise treat different parties before him in different ways. "Fair. . . but" is not enough. More than fairness is required of a judge.

Treating every case and controversy on its own merits and in its own context is the ideal. A judge doesn't owe former opponents anything; nor does a judge owe anything to former supporters. We believe that Justice Thomas knows this. He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee he had learned during his time on the court of appeals that a judge must abandon preconceptions that could interfere with meting out justice. We are sure his opinions will display this intellectual sensibility, the most important flesh-and-blood human aspect of the judicial process.

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