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Three years later, Thomas set among court conservatives

When Clarence Thomas barely squeezed past the Senate after tempestuous 1991 hearings and took his lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, many Americans wondered: "Who is the real Clarence Thomas?"

As a witness testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas had portrayed himself as a man of moderate views _ not the right-wing conservative he had been as an official for the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"I am just simply different from what people painted me to be," Thomas firmly told the senators.

But now, three years later, his record on the highest court in the land has provided evidence of differences between Clarence Thomas the witness and Clarence Thomas the justice.

Thomas, 46, and Antonin Scalia, 58, are the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court. They have agreed with each other in almost 90 percent of the cases accepted for review, more often than any other pair of justices.

Thomas cast key votes to make it tougher for minorities to prove job discrimination and for death row inmates to get a hearing on claims of newly discovered evidence of innocence. In dissent, he voted to limit free speech in street demonstrations and airports.

And on several specific issues _ religion, voting rights, prisoners' rights and deference to precedent _ Thomas retreated radically from the mainstream views he expressed at his confirmation hearings.

Thomas "had very heavy coaching (from the Bush White House) for his hearings and wanted to please his audience," observed University of Virginia Law School professor A.E. Dick Howard, a Supreme Court specialist. "There was a powerful incentive to avoid controversy. Now he marches in lockstep with Scalia."

Ever since Robert H. Bork's 1987 Supreme Court nomination foundered on the bluntness of his conservatism, nominees "have to be on the fence," said College of William and Mary government professor Scott Gerber.

"The process is so political . . . you have to leave the impression that you're not an extremist _ and then you go into this job for life and get to do whatever you want. Thomas has shown no hesitation to reject what he told the Senate," said Gerber, who is researching a book about Thomas.

At the same time, Thomas has tried to put behind him the wounds and notoriety of his nationally televised tug-of-war with law professor Anita Hill _ she accusing him of having sexually harassed her, he vehemently denying the charge and portraying himself as an innocent victim of "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."

Shortly after donning the black robe of a high court justice, Thomas said: "I want to get my anonymity back."

Now another book about the enigmatic jurist, titled Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, is scheduled for publication Wednesday.

Thomas remains the best known by far of the largely unknown justices. These days, he is famous even for his silence.

Visitors who attend legal arguments want to find out whether it is true, as reported, that Thomas, unlike the other eight justices, has withdrawn from the give-and-take of oral argument.

It is true. Thomas listens, stares at the ceiling, jots an occasional note and sometimes chats with his amiable new neighbor on the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer.

But all last term, and so far this term, he asked no questions of any of the lawyers who appear before the court in more than 100 cases. A justice who asked him about it said Thomas told him, "it's just my style."

He savors the racial anger in the writings of Richard Wright and Malcolm X, and admires the iconoclastic theories of black economist Thomas Sowell, the protest lyrics of singer-songwriter Nina Simone, and the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, the Roman Catholic "man for all seasons" who was beheaded for challenging King Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife.

Thomas likes to quote Robert Frost's famous lines of independence: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I _ I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

As if heeding Frost's advice, Thomas has long denounced the "orthodoxy" of civil rights activists, especially their advocacy of preferences for minorities.

Gerber, after studying the speeches of Justice Thomas, found that he "says a lot that it's a good thing to be different and people should value that, and that just because he's an African-American he doesn't have to be a liberal."

As if to underscore that point, Thomas delivered another shocker last May: He presided at the wedding of Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show commentator.

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