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Correction to This Article
An Oct. 10 article and an accompanying graphic incorrectly reported that the late Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun had written "Wow!" next to a passage critical of Justice Clarence Thomas in a New York Times column found in Blackmun's papers. The notation was written by Blackmun's chief secretary, Wanda S. Martinson, who says she was shocked by the column's vehement tone.

Thomas v. Blackmun

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By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 10, 2004

The nine men and women who wear the black robes, which are hung in wooden lockers like uniforms, revere their institution. They speak graciously about their colleagues and laud the decorum of their reclusive workplace. The halls they walk are quiet. In fact, they see each other infrequently -- mainly during their twice-weekly conferences to review cases or when they are on the bench listening to oral arguments from October through April. Rarely even a phone call gets exchanged, even after drafts of opinions are circulated and feedback is desired. Of the communication between justices, Clarence Thomas has said facetiously: "It is usually a letter such as, 'Dear Clarence, I disagree with everything in your opinion except your name. Cheers.' "

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Thomas jokes out of affection for the court and his colleagues. No justice speaks more glowingly of the court's rarefied culture than Clarence Thomas.

"Unlike so much of what we see in a contentious society, at least there, right or wrong, agree or disagree, there is the appropriate solemnity and gravitas to what we do," he told students at Ohio's Ashland University in 1999. "And in a cynical environment, we see no cynicism. Never. Not one drop."

In another speech that year, he said: "In the Supreme Court, there is no lobbying. It is always professional, warm and friendly."

But the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun's papers, released in March, puncture the image of the court as a bastion of genteel deliberation, where an unkind word is seldom spoken and lobbying to win the support of colleagues is frowned upon. Irreverence, pique and backstage political maneuvering, they are all in Blackmun's papers.

Much has been written about his papers, yet hardly anything about the portions dealing with Thomas. He and Blackmun, who retired in 1994 after 24 years on the court, served together for only three years. The papers suggest that Thomas was less than highly regarded by Blackmun, who made snide comments about his junior colleague's drafts -- "pretty bad," he noted on his copy of one. He even questioned whether Thomas had been forthcoming about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark abortion ruling, during his confirmation hearings.

Although he often was on the opposing side of Supreme Court decisions, Thomas had an affinity for Blackmun because of their shared working-class roots. In fact, in July 2001, Thomas spoke at the dedication of the Harry A. Blackmun Rotunda in the federal courthouse in St. Louis. He noted that Blackmun was "a modest but unpretentious man" who drove a blue Volkswagen Beetle and would introduce himself to suburban fast-food patrons as: "Harry, I work for the government."

In the oral history segment of Blackmun's papers, recorded in 1995, Blackmun tells interviewer Harold Koh that he didn't know anything about Thomas when he was nominated.

Blackmun was asked about Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Thomas during Thomas's confirmation hearings. Blackmun said there was "very little discussion" of that issue around the justices' conference table, where they gather in private to review cases.

Asked by Koh, now dean of Yale Law School, whether Thomas seemed bruised emotionally by the confirmation hearings when he came to the court, Blackmun responded: "I don't know how he can help but feel abused and to carry a certain bitterness in his soul through it."

Blackmun said he watched the hearings on television and was struck by Thomas's answer to questions about Roe v. Wade, which was written by Blackmun. Whether Thomas answered those questions truthfully remains a matter of contention among court observers, legal scholars and interest groups.

During his confirmation hearings, Thomas said he "cannot remember personally engaging" in discussions of the case and stated flatly to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.): "If you are asking me whether or not I have ever debated the contents of it, that answer to that is no, Senator."


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