CLARENCE THOMAS, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, appeared before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee this week seeking confirmation to a second term on the commission. His prepared statement dealt with administrative reorganizations and his management of the agency -- he is proud of both -- but not the policy questions on affirmative action that were of special interest to the senators. Members of the committee particularly wanted to know whether Mr. Thomas' views on goals and timetables had changed in light of two Supreme Court cases decided earlier this month. His answer was forthright and reassuring and should please those legislators who had been most concerned about the future direction of the commission.

Two years ago, on the strength of a high court ruling in a case involving Memphis firefighters, the Justice Department reaffirmed its opposition to goals and timetables as a means of correcting discrimination. It said the decision supported its view that civil rights remedies could be awarded only to individuals who had themselves been the direct victims of discrimination. The EEOC had never taken this view and did not at first join in the department's policy statement. Last fall, though, the agency's acting general counsel told EEOC regional attorneys that they should no longer accept settlements with private employers that involved the adoption of goals and timetables. This shift was said to reflect the views of a majority of the commissioners, but no formal vote had been taken and no public announcement made.

Now the Supreme Court has clearly and specifically approved the use of hiring goals and timetables and has reaffirmed the right of whole classes of people to seek remedies. Officials at the Justice Department have not clarified their intentions on seeking these remedies in the future, but Mr. Thomas has now done that for the commission. All EEOC attorneys, he assured the Senate committee, will be told "that they are to seek goals and timetables and race- and sex-conscious remedies permissible under the ruling of the Supreme Court." He is candid in admitting that he still has personal reservations about these remedies, but accepts the fact that the court's ruling is "the law of the land, whether I like it or not." That's a straightforward assurance that others in the administration would do well to copy.