After a high-pitched yelling match, the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday unanimously adopted a resolution warning judicial nominees that membership in discriminatory clubs is "inappropriate" and "conflicts with the appearance of impartiality" required for the job.
The panel also called on its fellow senators to resign from memberships they may hold in such clubs.
"In the 1990s, the practice of trading a seat at the club for a seat on the bench is not acceptable," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Although the resolution is non-binding, it is an unequivocal message to judges and prospective Justice Department employees that resignation from discriminatory clubs on the eve of confirmation hearings was not good enough.
In the past, membership in private clubs that discriminate have led not only to lengthy debates in hearings but to delays in confirmation.
All-white and all-male clubs have come under increased scrutiny and criticism in recent years, with the latest flap involving Birmingham's all-white Shoal Creek Country Club where this year's PGA Championship is scheduled to be held.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) resigned from two all-white country clubs during his 1988 Democratic vice presidential campaign, then rejoined them after his ticket was defeated.
Asked about his club memberships yesterday, Bentsen said through a spokesman, "I'm not going to quit them. I favor some kind of disclosure requirement and let the voters decide."
The resolution applies to clubs where business is conducted, where club members bring business clients or associates for conferences, meetings or to use facilities, and where a club "is one where contacts valuable for business purposes, employment and professional advancement are formed."
Service clubs, country clubs and eating clubs would fall into this category, according to staff members.
The resolution also includes clubs "where business is conducted that by policy or practice intentionally discriminate." Clubs that are purely fraternal or religious in nature are excluded, staff aides said.
Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, a coalition that has supported the resolution, said yesterday the panel's action "will put the public on notice that they've got to take this seriously."
The unanimous committee vote came after sometimes loud, cantankerous accusations between Democrat and Republican senators.
First came ranking minority member Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who evoked a rarely used rule limiting discussion in committee to two hours after Senate business begins. His parlimentary move would have effectively delayed a vote, since the committee had not gotten far into its debate. Thurmond said he had to get to the floor for a vote.
Kennedy, raising his voice, said his intent was to delay a vote.
"That's false . . . . I'm amazed at you," Thurmond shot back.
Then came an even louder discussion between Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who said the resolution amounted to "absolutely nothing" and would make well-intentioned white men subject to being accused as racist, and Kennedy, who argued for the "hundreds of thousands of blacks and women who are tired of being excluded."
Positions softened after a paragraph-long compromise amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) was accepted by the Democrats. Apologies and praise for fellow committee members followed.