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Confirmation spurs call for new political strategy.

Last November, when Clarence Thomas was officially elevated to the position of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the event was greeted with equal parts of elation and frustration. Although polls showed a majority of blacks supported Thomas's confirmation as the second black to serve on the Supreme Court, there is still a cloud of uncertainty. Speculation than the bitter aftertaste of the Senate Confirmation Hearings may affect his performance has been added to initial doubts about his fitness to serve on the court. Moreover, scholars and civil rights advocates suggest that, with the Supreme Court now stacked with conservatives, blacks will not be able to rely on the court to support many of their concerns.

Thomas didn't climb "no crystal stair" to his seat on the high court. The initial review of his qualifications to serve on the court left the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 7-7 stalemate. The confirmation process was passed on to the full Senate for a vote, but not before allegations of sexual harassment against him were leaked to the press. Public outcry led to nationally televised hearings to determine the validity of the charges leveled by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, a former aide to Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Although Thomas won Senate approval by a 52-48 margin (the second smallest margin in history), that fragile show of confidence in him is not enough to quiet all doubters. "There isn't any question," says Howard University political science department chairman Ron Walters, "Anita Hill's charges damaged his credibility as a justice. To a significant proportion of the population, she was credible."

Thomas's perceived lack of credibility may turn into questions about the credibility of the entire court. Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law says that if the court renders a string of decisions that many view as not good for the country. "There will be a feeling among some people that the court has become a place for political appointees, rather than a place for prominent jurists who act impartially to the law."

Indeed, it appears likely that the court may not act impartially toward most issues. With the addition of Thomas to the court's already conservative majority, many feel it will seek to overturn past rulings affecting affirmative-action laws, civil rights and individual rights, which most blacks support. "[Thomas's] judicial opinions have been viewed as extremely hostile to the interests of African-Americans," says Russell Owens, director of the national policy institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Judge Thomas doesn't appear to be any different than the other members of the right-wing conservative pack on the court."

Thomas's likely alignment with the court's conservatives poses another problem as well. "Should [Thomas] join the court's conservative camp in eroding, limiting or restricting civil rights law," says Arnwine, "[the Bush administration] will use his concurrence to justify adverse decisions for our communities."

According to Owens, issues involving occupational safety, the right to privacy, Constitutional guarantees against excessive force and illegal searches and seizures, will all come before the court during its current term. The court will also consider integration of educational institutions in Mississippi, and challenges to restrictive abortion laws in Pennsylvania, Utah and Louisiana.

Observers say new approaches are needed to counteract what the black community may view as wave of potentially disastrous Supreme Court decisions. "Certainly blacks can't look to the Supreme Court for equal justice," says Walters. "Congress is the major forum from which we can expect some redress. Our political strategy has to be shoring our ability to deal with white congressmen who serve significant black populations...We also have to deal with the redistricting process to increase our representation."

Owens agrees. "We have to find ways of exercising our political power more effectively. We must build broad-based coalitions, formulate a consensus in the black community on issues and then translate that into political action."
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Title Annotation:US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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