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President George W. Bush’s nominees for the second- and third-highest jobs in the Justice Department made an odd pair before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. On one side of the table sat the candidate for deputy attorney general: Larry Thompson, a former Atlanta federal prosecutor often praised for his ability to stay above partisan politics. On the other side sat Solicitor General-designate Theodore Olson, a fierce critic of the Clinton administration who argued for Bush during the Supreme Court’s consideration of the election cases last December. Thompson received glowing endorsements from his home state senators, Democrats Max Cleland and Zell Miller, and generally easy treatment by the panel. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Thompson simply that his opening statement was one of the finest she’d ever heard, that she would be pleased to vote for him, and that she didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with softball questions. Then she turned to Olson, who was introduced to the Judiciary Committee by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Donald Nickles, R-Okla. Feinstein said she had been prepared to vote for him, too, until she read an article he wrote last year for The American Spectator, a conservative magazine that crusaded against former President Bill Clinton. In “The Most Political Justice Department Ever: A Survey,” Olson wrote in the September 2000 issue, “There is ample evidence that cannot be ignored that, from the beginning, Janet Reno allowed her department to be overwhelmed by partisan politics and that she readily submitted to the personal and private interests of President Clinton and his partner in running the department, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Feinstein, now a Democratic colleague of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, called the article “certainly not an even-handed analysis.” She said the partisan approach of the article concerned her, since the solicitor general represents the government before the Supreme Court. Olson acknowledged that the article was “hard-hitting” and cited his work in the Reagan Justice Department as an example of his ability to be a nonpartisan advocate. From 1981 until 1984, Olson headed the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. Republican and Democrat holders of that post have praised Olson’s tenure as one that brought integrity to the decision making. “I believed then and I believe now that you put your partisan positions aside” when working for the Justice Department, Olson said. But Feinstein continued to express doubts. “Why should I believe you will [be even-handed] when you [aren't] in your writing?” she asked. Olson pressed his case that he would stay above partisan interests as solicitor general. Feinstein also asked Olson, a Washington, D.C., partner in Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, about his representation of a company that challenged a California law granting maternity leave rights in 1986. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law by a 6-3 vote. Accordingly, Olson said Thursday, that as solicitor general he would defend a comparable federal law. The questioning of Thompson was decidedly less pointed. A partner in Atlanta’s King & Spalding, Thompson welled up with tears as he was introduced to the committee by Sen. Miller. “He is a man who will put principle above politics every time,” said Miller, who as Georgia governor appointed Thompson to the state school board in 1997. Thompson, the son of a railroad laborer, noted that he attended segregated schools growing up in Hannibal, Mo. Sitting before the Judiciary Committee, he said, was something “I simply couldn’t have imagined 40 years ago.” During questioning, Thompson pledged to try to accommodate the DOJ oversight subcommittee chaired by Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, who last year subpoenaed rank-and-file DOJ lawyers during a series of investigations. Asked about racial profiling, Thompson, who is black, called the practice not only unconstitutional but also “simply wrong.” “I have been the victim of that kind of activity,” Thompson added without elaboration. Among the 100 or so people attending the hearing was Virginia Lamp Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thompson and Clarence Thomas know each other from when they both worked in the corporate counsel department of Monsanto Co. During Thomas’ fiery confirmation hearings in 1991, Thompson helped Thomas defend himself from sexual harassment accusations made by law professor Anita Hill. The hearing itself was squeezed between a series of Senate votes on the budget and held in a basement conference room below the Capitol. That arrangement irked the ranking Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who noted that normally, candidates for deputy attorney general get their own hearings. ALM Supreme Court Correspondent Tony Mauro contributed to this article.

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