Thomas: Federal Judiciary Held Hostage by Abortion Issue

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Federal court appointments are being held hostage by the abortion issue, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Friday in advocating a briefer, less intrusive confirmation process.

Speaking to law students at the University of Alabama, Thomas said former clerks and other lawyers often tell him they're not interested in federal judgeships because of the potential for bruising confirmation battles.

"I think that's a problem when the stars are beginning to say, `Thank you, but no thanks,"' said Thomas.

Thomas, who opposes the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, said the fight he faced during his own confirmation hearings in 1991 went back to abortion politics. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment, charges he referred to at the time as a "high-tech lynching" for an "uppity" black man.

"I think we all should be honest with one another that the only issue, the central issue in all of this, is abortion. It's not the other things that people throw out," he said. "The whole judiciary now is being held, in a sense, hostage to that one issue."

Without giving specifics, Thomas said the confirmation process should be scaled back and not allow for seemingly every aspect of a nominee's life to be laid bare.

"We cannot say that all the examination of nominees has improved the court," said Thomas.

Thomas said he has never met a judge who attempted to impose a personal agenda through decisions, so attempting to uncover such people through extensive hearings is pointless.

"The whole process of trying to ferret out the personal agenda through the confirmation process isn't an endeavor that I think is worth the price we are paying," said Thomas. "I think the only thing it does is rats out the agenda of the people asking the questions."

Thomas didn't mention President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito for a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but he said he doubted the withdrawal of Bush's first nominee, Harriet Miers, was linked to abortion.

Thomas spoke fondly of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and he said his replacement, John Roberts, has a similar personality.

"He is younger, he is smart, he is a nice guy," Thomas said. "He is absolutely fabulous, and we are lucky to have him."