Menu JTA Search

Jewish Groups Scrutinizing Record of Bush’s Supreme Court Nominee

Jewish organizations are preparing to take a close look at the record of Clarence Thomas, the 43-year-old black conservative President Bush has nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bush named Thomas to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black to have served on the court, who announced his retirement on June 27.

Thomas frequently expressed his opposition to minority hiring quotas or any type of racial preference during the time he was chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1989.

But his views on other issues important to the Jewish community, such as abortion and the separation of church and state, are largely unknown. He has not dealt with any of these issue since becoming a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1989.

During a news conference Monday outside Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Thomas refused to answer specific questions until he has his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But he did note that his remarks on quotas were made when he was in a “policy-making role” and he has not yet had to deal with the issue as a judge.

Jewish groups rarely take stands on Supreme Court nominees and, in this case, are reserving judgment until they know more about Thomas’ positions. Some are submitting suggested questions for Thomas to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

‘DOES NOT HONOR’ MARSHALL’S LEGACY

But one organization, the American Jewish Congress, has already expressed strong reservations about the nomination, though it has not decided whether to oppose it.

Henry Siegman, the group’s executive director, called Bush’s choice “a disappointing one.”

In nominating Thomas, the president “seems to have deliberately, with malice of forethought, nominated a man who has been a thorn in the side of the entire civil rights community,” said Siegman.

“It is an ungracious act at best and one that does not honor the legacy of Thurgood Marshall,” he added.

The American Jewish Committee was more reserved.

“We expected the president to nominate a man or woman who was basically conservative,” said Samuel Rabinove, the agency’s legal director.

But Rabinove said he should be closely questioned like other nominees for the high court. “His being black should not insulate him from critical scrutiny,” he said.

AJCommittee and Thomas agree on their opposition to numerical quotas. But AJCommittee supports “realistic goals and timetables” while Thomas believes they are de facto quotas, Rabinove said.

Sammie Moshenberg, Washington representatives of the National Council of Jewish Women, also expressed concern that Thomas had no record on such issues as the right of privacy and the separation of church and state.

She also said the National Council is “dismayed” by the record Thomas did have at the EEOC, in which he displayed a lack of sympathy about attaining equal pay for women. She said the organization is also troubled that during his tenure Thomas had left 13,000 age-discrimination charges lapse without acting on them.

‘VERY COMFORTABLE WITH’ NOMINEE

But “it is important that his views on such issues as the separation of church and state, free exercise of religion, freedom of expression and the constitutional right to privacy, on which the right to abortion is based, be thoroughly examined during the confirmation process,” it said.

The statement was signed by Melvin Salberg, the group’s national chairman, and Abraham Foxman, its national director.

While Orthodox groups agree with secular Jewish organizations that they have to find out more about Thomas’ views, they seem ready to offer their approval now.

“We have a sense he is somebody we can be very comfortable with,” said William Rapfogel, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Rapfogel said that Thomas displayed an “incredible sensitivity to the Jewish people” while he was at the EEOC. In 1986, the organization presented him with its Humanitarian Award.

During his EEOC tenure, Thomas also was “sensitive to the rights and concerns of Sabbath observers,” said David Zwiebel, director of governmental affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Zwiebel said Agudath Israel feels “a sense of kinship” with Thomas for “debunking the myth” that the black community is monolithic, just as Agudath Israel has sought to demonstrate that the Jewish community does not take a single stand on all issues. He said it is very healthy to show that there is diversity in the black community as in every community.

Thomas has “a very strong streak of independence, which has been honed by being very much an outsider within the black leadership group,” said Murray Friedman, Middle Atlantic states director of the AJCommittee.

A JEWISH SEAT ON THE COURT?

Friedman, who served as vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1986 to 1989, said he has enormous respect for Thomas. “I have never seen a more towering intelligence,” he said.

Friedman said that while Marshall ably represented the black community in its fight for civil rights, the struggle today is for “empowerment,” which calls for different kind of strategies. He believes Thomas will be more suited for today’s agenda.

At his news conference Bush denied that he had selected Thomas because he is black, stressing that he considers him the best man for the job. “I don’t feel that there should be a black seat on the court or an ethnic seat on the court,” the president said.

Most Jewish leaders also do not believe there should be a seat set aside for Jews on the high court bench.

But New York attorney Seymour Reich said that while he agrees with that position, he is “troubled by the failure to find qualified jurists of the Jewish faith. Certainly there is an abundance of Jews sitting in the federal courts.”

Reich, a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, pointed out that there has not been a Jew on the Supreme Court since Abe Fortas resigned in the beginning of the Nixon administration.

He said that if Bush has another Supreme Court nomination, he may feel pressure from the Jewish community to nominate a Jew.

NEXT STORY