WASHINGTON -- Judge Clarence Thomas, nominated to be the nation's second black Supreme Court justice, attempted yesterday to blunt criticism that he has turned his back on the civil rights community, crediting his rise from humble beginnings to its efforts.
"I have benefited greatly from the civil rights movement, from the justice for whom I am nominated to succeed," Judge Thomas said in a reference to Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black Supreme Court justice, who recently announced plans to retire.
Judge Thomas' comments came as he spent another day paying courtesy calls on the senators who will approve or reject his candidacy.
Before a clutch of reporters jammed into the office of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., Judge Thomas told the one-time segregationist how "extremely fortunate" he had been in his rise from rural poverty -- a path he credited the civil rights movement with clearing.
Many critics charge the conservative judge with abandoning the civil rights movement, a contention they justify on the basis of his opposition to traditional affirmative action remedies. In what appeared to be an effort to neutralize those accusations, Judge Thomas specifically mentioned the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as groups whose work helped him rise in the segregated South.
The NAACP has deferred taking a position on Judge Thomas' nomination, saying it wants to study his record on civil rights and his tenure as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Reagan era.
Yesterday, Judge Thomas' supporters did not dwell on the nominee's philosophical conservatism but instead sought to emphasize the almost storybook quality of his history.
"You deserve a lot of credit. You brought yourself up by your own bootstraps. We are very proud of your accomplishments," Mr. Thurmond told Judge Thomas. "The only thing I want to do is just give you a copy of the Constitution. Follow that, and that's all I would ask you to do."
Judge Thomas reached into his breast pocket and produced an identical wallet-size copy that Mr. Thurmond had given him when he was nominated last year to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. "Thank you, Senator. Here is my old copy," he said.
Later, Judge Thomas met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del.
Mr. Biden said that confirmation hearings before his committee would begin around Labor Day, adding that "if Mr. Thomas is confirmed, it would be in time to take his seat by the first Monday in October," when the court reconvenes.
Meanwhile, debate raged over what Judge Thomas should and shouldn't be asked in those hearings. Abortion rights activists are worried that Judge Thomas, who once trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood, will vote to reverse the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that has protected a woman's right to an abortion for nearly two decades.
They want the judiciary panel to quiz Judge Thomas about his views on abortion before voting to confirm -- an action that would fly in the face of recent custom.
"Some of the politically correct litmus-testers here in Washington want to deny the fulfillment of Clarence Thomas' all-American dream" because he is a black conservative, said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
Mr. Dole went on to urge fellow senators not to require Judge Thomas "to answer specific questions about specific cases that may come before the Supreme Court," exhorting his colleagues to "resist the temptation of transforming federal judges into politicians."
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden insisted that senators were "free to ask whatever questions they want, and Mr. Thomas is free to answer whatever questions he wants."