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Senate panel recovers from Thomas hearings ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- It was Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg who endured three long days of questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But in a sense it was the committee itself that was on trial in its confirmation proceedings to consider President Clinton's appointment of the 60-year-old federal appellate court judge to the Supreme Court.

Memories of the committee's 1991 screening of the previous Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, hung over the hearings, reminding the country of the rancorous and messy airing of sexual harassment allegations against Thomas by law professor and former subordinate Anita Hill.

Even before those charges were raised, Thomas had gotten into trouble with the committee by steadfastly declining to take positions on some critical issues, most notably where he stood on abortion. He had insisted, to the disbelief of many committee members, that all through law school and in his career as a government official and later a federal court of appeals judge he had never expressed his views or had spoken about the highly controversial issue.

For this and other reasons, the committee voted to send the Thomas nomination to the Senate floor without a recommendation -- a most unusual action. Thomas, who is black, had been selected by then President George Bush to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of the court's first black member, Thurgood Marshall, and Bush's insistence that Thomas' race had nothing to do with the appointment also had met with deep skepticism, if not ridicule, because Thomas had been on the appeals court only a year.

Sen. Joseph Biden, the committee chairman at the time, said of Thomas' stonewalling: "Perhaps this is what some have advised him would be the best route to confirmation, and perhaps they are right about the politics, but it is a political strategy that I do not intend to endorse by voting for Judge Thomas' confirmation."

Before the nomination got to the Senate floor, however, Hill's allegations surfaced and plunged the committee into one of its least illustrious weekends. As television cameras transmitted the testimony of Thomas, Hill and others, and the nation watched in rapt attention, Hill coolly aired her charges and Thomas defiantly charged the committee with persecuting him because he was black.

Pro-Thomas witnesses, joined by some Republican committee members, attacked Hill's character and the hearings disintegrated into a real-life soap opera, after which Thomas was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Polls at the time found Americans believed Thomas rather than Hill by more than 2-to-1 -- a view that has since turned around. But the judgment of the Judiciary Committee remained constant -- that the fiasco of its hearings was a disgrace.

In reviewing Judge Ginsburg, the committee seemed to bend over backward to treat the nominee with deference -- although she too declined to spell out her views on another critical issue, the death penalty. But Ginsburg was outspoken on most other issues raised, and she came across as reasonable and balanced, to the relief of conservative senators who feared Clinton might throw a flaming liberal at them after the five conservatives nominated in the Reagan-Bush era.

Stylistically and substantively, the committee could not have FTC asked for a better nominee with which to clean up its tarnished image. The grandmotherly judge acknowledged her liberal record as lawyer and jurist in the area of abortion and women's rights but without bombast, and committee members found little to nit-pick about. Even Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of Hill's chief tormentors in 1991, could not have been more accommodating.

The televising of the confirmation hearings, however, was too tempting for the senators to restrain their accustomed wind-baggery. The judge patiently tolerated them, while on occasion gently exposing their lack of expertise on specific cases, in the manner of a benign schoolteacher.

As a result, Judge Ginsburg seems headed for easy Senate confirmation before the summer recess starts next week, even as the committee has restored some of its tarnished image.

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