Politics and the influence of special-interest groups have warped America's system of nominating and confirming federal judges, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a meeting of lawyers and judges today.

"They have distorted the process," said Thomas, whose own nomination to the high court in 1991 was contested bitterly after allegations of sexual harassment arose during his confirmation hearings.

Thomas made his remarks to the annual conference of the 8th U.S. Judicial Circuit, a meeting of judges and lawyers who work in federal courts in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Thomas oversees the circuit.

While not directly discussing his confirmation battle, Thomas said the process President George Bush used to make his nomination should stand as a model for other presidents in selecting judicial nominees.

Describing in detail the four days between the resignation of Justice Thurgood Marshall and his own nomination, Thomas sought to dispel speculation that Bush had made him pass an ideological litmus test.

Soon after Marshall announced his resignation, Thomas said, Thomas was called to the Justice Department to meet with administration officials.

"I was asked perfunctory questions -- and I mean perfunctory -- `Has anybody ever criticized you and your wife for your biracial marriage?' " Thomas recalled. "I won't tell you my answer, but it was prescient."

Bush soon called Thomas to Maine to "discuss that Supreme Court thing," the justice said.

At Bush's Kennebunkport home, the president asked two questions and made a promise before offering the post, Thomas said.

Can you and your family survive the confirmation?

"Cavalierly, I said yes," Thomas remembered.

If nominated to the court, could you call them as you see them?

"I said, yes, that's the way I live," Thomas said.

Bush then pledged never to criticize him or his decisions from the bench. "There were no questions about abortion and no questions about judicial philosophy," Thomas said. "Those questions came from the interest groups."

Bush's approach showed respect for judicial independence and the man he was considering for the post, Thomas said.

"To this day, he prides himself for not getting into the substantive issues," Thomas said. "In my view, if you respect the independence prior to the appointment, it will be respected after the process. Our federal judiciary can only benefit from this process."

In recent years, the White House and Senate have worked to fill a backlog of vacant judgeships. During the last presidential election, the White House contended that Republican senators were stalling the confirmations of federal judges on political grounds. Senators said President Clinton was slow making nominations.

According to recent figures, that backlog has begun to clear.

In June 1997, the courts reported 98 vacant judgeships with only 25 pending nominations.

As of July 1, however, the courts reported 69 vacancies with 40 nominations pending.

Still, the courts have declared 23 "judicial emergencies." Such emergencies are called when a judgeship in a particularly busy courthouse remains vacant for 18 months or longer.

Thomas, one of the most conservative members of the Supreme Court, said judges must be able to manage criticism to sit on the federal bench. And that's made easier by the warm relations he has with other justices, he said.

"My colleagues, to a person, have been wonderful, wonderful people," he said.

And, occasionally, he finds humor in the criticism. He recalled the time a newspaper editorial writer called him the "youngest and the cruelest" judge on the court.

"I kind of like that -- youngest and cruelest," mused Thomas, who is 51. "Sounds like a soap opera. I particularly like the youngest part."