As first term ends, Thomas' burden remains Imprint on high court's work not shown

May 12, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It was only a single line of type, under a picture in a gossipy magazine. But it stood out like a too-obvious blemish on the brand-new career of Clarence Thomas as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That was six months ago, but the image that resulted from one quotation has not completely cleared up.

Underneath a picture of Justice Thomas and his wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas, posing informally with coffee cups in hand in their kitchen, the caption in People magazine read: " 'Clarence will give everyone a fair day in court,' says Virginia. 'But I feel he doesn't owe any of the groups who opposed him anything.' "

At the Supreme Court, where tradition hangs as heavy as the towering red drapes in the chamber, where decorum is assumed to be everybody's practiced habit and where private thoughts are guarded like state secrets, that very frank quotation rattled the sensibilities as few things could.

A longtime member of that cloistered and mannered little community remarked privately, across a lunch table: "What does she think she's doing? And what the hell does he think she's doing?"

A member of a justice's own household was perceived to be putting a whole class of future litigants -- specifically, civil rights groups who had opposed Justice Thomas' nomination -- on notice that their lawyers in cases yet to come would be heard skeptically by that justice.

Among the old hands behind the court's marbled walls, there is shared pain that every justice nowadays seems to have to run the gantlet to get on that bench. But, just as surely, there is a shared sense that, once a justice gets there -- for a life term -- the pain doesn't count anymore, the resentment is to be forgotten and the public display of private emotion is to end.

The magazine episode has acquired a symbolism of its own, a symptom of problems that the justice faced before he sat on that bench a single day, problems that linger.

Seldom has a justice arrived at the court with as heavy a burden as Justice Thomas seems to have about his legitimacy as one of the select, five-score judges ever to sit there. As his first term approaches its end, that burden remains.

While he seems to be the most conspicuous judge in the country, and the object of Supreme Court tourists' abiding fascination, he has not yet begun to put a conspicuous imprint on the court's work and remains at least partly an enigma. Of his seven opinions for the court so far, three have been about obscure bankruptcy issues, the others on rather narrow legal questions. New justices do not always make a noticeable impact in their first year, but other new justices have seemed to have been more involved in their early months.

Justice Thomas has sat through hearings in case after case, including some of the most important, and has said not a word, at times looking almost totally detached from the heavy forensic combat among his spirited colleagues.

There are some suggested explanations for why he has not been a more vivid, more involved member of the bench. Says one source: "He got absolutely no rest last summer, and he started the term exhausted -- he complains about that. He is just waiting for the term to end; he knows he won't get any rest until then."

One of his loyal supporters, Alan Slobodin, president and general counsel of legal studies for a conservative advocacy organization, the Washington Legal Foundation, disagrees with that assessment: "Like any first-year justice, he's getting his bearings, and he's doing it in a smooth fashion, in a modest way."

Within Justice Thomas' chambers, and around the courthouse, he is said to exude a friendly, almost glad-handing camaraderie. He gives off a noticeable air of masculine informality by smoking cigars in his chambers, and his now-famous booming laugh apparently can be heard through the secure walls.

"He goes out of his way to meet people," says a lower-ranking court staff member who would have no reason even to deal with a justice. And says that aide admiringly: "Shaking his hand is like grabbing a sledgehammer!"

Justice Thomas, who used to be an avid weight lifter, reportedly has given that up because "he bulks up when he does that," according to a court aide. Instead, he is exercising, alone, either in the room of the court's physical therapist or in the private gym on the top floor.

In December, at the court's holiday party, he was entirely accommodating when employees of the court eagerly asked to have their pictures taken with him.

But Justice Thomas also is reported to be so aware of the controversy that still pursues him that he is allowing a supposedly natural tendency to isolate himself take hold anew. He generally says no to all speaking engagements, even though he is quite heavily in demand. He sees small groups, mostly made up of students, in his chambers.

He grants no press interviews and reportedly insists that he reads no newspapers, ever.

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