CLARENCE THOMAS takes office as associate justice of the Supreme Court after perhaps the nastiest confirmation fight in memory. The hardest test of his career will be to try to put it behind him. There has been all kinds of speculation in the last day as to how his experience during these confirmation hearings will move him on different issues coming before the court. A great deal depends on his recapturing a judicial frame of mind, as he himself must be the first to understand.
We said before: He brings to an increasingly conservative court a range of experience that none of the other sitting justices has had. We hope that this will help to inform his decision-making. The single most important duty of the court lies always in balancing the rights of minorities in a majority-driven society. Judge Thomas has been working his way through this set of issues throughout his adult life. He has the capacity to broaden the view of a court that now faces a long list of decisions reaching deeply into the lives of most Americans -- and a court that badly needs the help.
Judge Thomas is not the only one who has had a rough passage in this confirmation process. The process has become a shambles and badly needs repair. A variety of proposals for this have already been heard -- greater use of executive sessions, as Lloyd Cutler proposes on the op-ed page today, clearer criteria as to what is to be explored in such hearings and so on. It is a subject to which we will return another day. But for now what is important is that the political decision has been made, although narrowly. Judge Thomas now returns to judicial duty -- a different matter, we trust. His contribution can only be enhanced if it turns out that his reluctance to be specific about his judicial thinking during his confirmation hearings reflects a determination to think through anew the questions that come to him on the court.