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Thomas Takes Oath in Secret Ceremony : Judiciary: Justice Rehnquist swears him in at hastily arranged function. He is said to want to get to work while high court is in recess.

October 24, 1991|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a hastily arranged secret ceremony, Clarence Thomas was sworn in Wednesday as the nation's 106th Supreme Court justice, providing a fitting end to a consistently surprising confirmation process.

Thomas had been scheduled to take his judicial oath of office in a traditional Supreme Court ceremony Nov. 1. Since the court is in recess this week and next, the justices will not conduct any official business or hear arguments until Nov. 4.

But Wednesday morning, Thomas called Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and asked to be sworn in immediately.

"As I understand it, he wants to get to work and he wants to get his clerks working," court spokeswoman Toni House said.

At noon, Rehnquist recited the oath, which Thomas repeated, swearing to "do equal right to the poor and to the rich." The only other people to witness the oath were Thomas' wife, Virginia; Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), a former employer and close friend of Thomas, and Robb Jones, the administrative assistant to the chief justice.

Because of the fierce, 11th-hour fight over Thomas' confirmation in the Senate and his razor-thin margin of victory, the normally low-key swearing-in ceremonies for a new Supreme Court justice took on added significance. As the ceremonies were quickly arranged, officials also engaged in a behind-the-scenes debate over when a confirmed nominee becomes a full-fledged justice of the high court.

Last Thursday, less than two days after Thomas won a 52-48 confirmation roll call in the Senate, Rehnquist's wife, Natalie, died after a long struggle with cancer. Her funeral services were Tuesday.

But the White House went ahead with a highly public ceremony Friday on the South Lawn in which Justice Byron R. White, substituting for the chief justice, administered a constitutional oath to Thomas, the first of two oaths required of every new justice.

Nearly 1,000 friends and supporters were invited to the public oath-taking, which was broadcast live on television. Repeatedly, President Bush referred to the recently confirmed nominee as "Justice Clarence Thomas," and White House aides told reporters that Thomas had become a full member of the high court immediately after Friday's ceremony.

But court officials disagreed and asked Justice White to clarify the matter. Prior to administering the first oath, White pointedly told Thomas that "when at 10 o'clock on Nov. 1 you take the judicial oath that is required by statute, you will become the 106th justice to sit on the Supreme Court."

White House officials denied suggestions that they were worried about the possibility of new, damaging disclosures about Thomas that might have been made public before he could take his seat on the high court.

Court spokeswoman House said Wednesday that Thomas' swearing-in would put him and his four law clerks on the court payroll immediately. A Supreme Court justice earns $153,600 a year, compared to the $132,700 that Thomas has been receiving as an appeals court judge. Court clerks earn $37,294 a year.

House also noted that being a "full-blown justice would give him access to documents that are not public," such as memos and draft opinions circulating among the justices. But Thomas cannot participate in deciding the 20 cases heard in October before his arrival. Moreover, the materials for the upcoming cases, including briefs and lower court records, are publicly available.

Despite having completed the confirmation process, court officials said they still plan to conduct the Nov. 1 ceremony, in which Thomas will repeat the same judicial oath in the courtroom before friends, family and government officials.

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