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The Real Clarence Thomas?


There were enough contradictions implicit in Judge Clarence Thomas' testimony in his confirmation hearings last week that Sen. Howell Heflin finally said to him he couldn't decide if he was "a closet liberal" or representative of "a right wing extremist group." He asked, "What will the real Clarence Thomas do on the Supreme Court?"

"I am the real Clarence Thomas," the judge replied, "and I have attempted to bring that person here for you to see."

Has he succeeded? The person, yes. A justice, maybe. The Clarence Thomas we saw last week has been a wise, assured, likable and judicious personality. But how he would decide to vote in chambers and in conference are more important than how he will conduct himself on the bench.

On the basis of his responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, we are still not sure how he would vote or how he would decide how to vote. Too often in answering questions he chose to retreat into such safe responses as, "I have to wait to read the briefs and hear the oral arguments." Too often he obfuscated when asked about prior writings. He gave the impression that he is much closer to the right wing extreme than to closet liberalism.

Closer, but so close as to be out of the mainstream of today's political and judicial thought? Not on the evidence of last week's testimony, unless Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter also are. Judge Thomas showed as much deference to precedent as any of those recent nominees. He showed as much (in fact more) support for affirmative action, based on poverty if not on race. His "natural law" comments were fuzzy and on occasion bothersome, but hardly radical. He said several times he sees some right to privacy in the liberty clause of the 14th Amendment, and he did not flatly rule out finding this privacy right in the Ninth Amendment, where some Democratic liberals believe it would be more firmly rooted.

That brings us to the crucial issue in the Thomas nomination, abortion. Judge Thomas was a little too unresponsive in answering questions on this subject, but even here he was at least as reassuring as Messrs. Scalia, Kennedy and Souter that he would be open-minded as a justice.

Judge Thomas has been accused by some who have closely followed his career and his hearings as having experienced "a confirmation conversion." He is hiding his true and radical feelings in order to assure confirmation. This week's version is not the real Clarence Thomas, they say, and a proper reading of his record will prove this.

That could be. If so, if he has misled the committee about his core beliefs, we would have serious doubts about his fitness for the bench. Integrity is vital for a judge. These critics will have a chance to prove their charge to the committee this week. It is a serious charge. The committee should be as thorough and relentless in questioning them as it has been in questioning Judge Thomas.

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