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Leaving the bench and taking the stand

Alabama Circuit Judge Randall Thomas quits the court to devote his energies to educating fellow Democrats about partial-birth abortion, and President Clinton's support of it

He's a Deep South Democrat. He's a circuit judge. He's an evangelical believer. Before it became a fad, he had reached out to the black community of Montgomery, Ala., in hopes of reconciling the races. He's passionately opposed to abortion, which sets him apart from many of his fellow jurists. And now, in a presidential election year, when the issue of abortion draws the darkest contrast between the two parties, Judge Randall Thomas has drawn the line between himself and fellow Democrats more distinctly.

After 21 years on the bench, he has retired so that he can speak out freely against abortion, in particular partial-birth abortion.

He's soft-spoken, articulate, almost hesitant to speak for fear he'll jump ahead of God. He wants to spread the word about partial birth abortions, yet he won't grant an interview until he's prayed about a request and has God's go-ahead.

His retirement has created a stir in Alabama, but he believed that in order to make his stand, that was his only course. Now he is free to denounce the grisly procedure. His retirement comes just weeks before congressional leaders hope to override the presidential veto of the partial birth abortion ban. The vote is likely to come up in September. "I'm just trying to speak out," he says, "and hope enough people will hear it."

Until four months ago, Judge Randall Thomas, 51, didn't know what a partial birth abortion is. But he found out. "It was like the scales were flipped off my eyes," he said, "and I saw how blind we have been."

Even in his denunciation, however, this 6-foot-4 judge, who played basketball for Auburn University, cautions that all must be done in love. "I want this thing wrapped in the love of Jesus," he says. "No condemnation. I want the women, and men, to know they can come to Jesus and receive forgiveness. It's the love of God that will turn us around on this issue."

The judge is a soft-spoken man, given to spontaneous supplication, whether he's in a hotel lobby or the set of a television show, praying before and after interviews. It's hard to tell, sometimes, when he's talking to you and when he's talking to God.

Until 12 years ago, Judge Thomas says, he favored the right to an abortion. "I had allowed my natural compassion for the unmarried, pregnant teenage girl to blind me to the truth."

But even after he understood that abortion was wrong, he said, he felt no passion about the issue.

Then, in the spring, President Clinton vetoed the law Congress passed that would have banned partial birth abortions.

Judge Thomas was driving home from the courthouse in Montgomery when he heard a radio report of the Clinton veto. "A stirring came over me," he says. "I knew it was the Lord."

But he didn't know what exactly it was that Mr. Clinton had vetoed. So he began to ask his friends. He first went to an internist who is a Christian. That doctor didn't know what a partial-birth abortion was. Then, in turn, he asked a heart surgeon, a radiologist, four lawyers, and another judge--believers all; none of them knew.

Finally, he asked a friend who is an ob-gyn doctor actively involved with a pregnancy crisis center, and she didn't know. But she said she'd find out and call back within an hour. "It was during that hour," he said, "that I understood something was going on beyond the natural. There was a supernatural deception."

Then, when she called back with a graphic description, he says: "The stir became a burn."

"The first sense I had was the devil has now overshot the runway." People will see these well-developed babies being delivered, he said, and finally understand they are humans who are being murdered.

As part of his decision-making process, he asked the Democratic National Convention for all its material about abortion and the partial-birth procedure. And he asked for the same material from Focus on the Family and the National Right to Life Committee.

"One side or the other is flat-out lying," he said, "and you know which side I came down on."

So God led him to retire so that he can educate people about, and denounce, partial-birth abortions. "One hundred-fifty years ago, it was slavery, and they were crying 'states' rights.'"

"Now they're crying 'women's rights.' The parallel is so clear to me now. It wasn't four months ago."

Judge Thomas, who has made racial reconciliation one of his primary tasks through the years, believes the black community will see the parallel and understand its urgency. "They have lived in bondage. They cried out 150 years ago. Then, 30 years ago, they cried out again.

"They can issue a cry on Nov. 5 by leaving blank the spot next to President Clinton's name."

Which is what he'll urge all Democrats within his hearing to do, even if they are going to vote the straight Democratic ticket otherwise.

He won't, however, encourage voters to pull the lever for Bob Dole or any other candidate.

In his years on the bench, he said, he avoided Democratic politics in order to maintain the integrity of the judgeship.

In the same sense, he doesn't want to pollute his message with partisan politics. And, he says, he's practical. Judge Thomas believes "blacks aren't going to go out and vote Republican," but he does hope at least many will decline to support Mr. Clinton.

He was at a judges' convention in Montgomery, discussing with a fellow believer the moral dilemma presented by the issue of legal abortions.

A member of the Alabama Supreme Court stopped and inquired about their conversation. Upon hearing their topic, the justice said, without a pause: "Just follow the law."

To which Judge Thomas replied: So, if this were 150 years ago, and a black man were brought into your courtroom, you would treat him like a piece of property?

The judge had no response. But later, he hunted down Judge Thomas. "I have the answer," he said. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."

Judge Thomas prayed silently for a response and heard this answer spill from his lips: That story, he reminded the justice, was about the Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up over the issue of paying taxes. Jesus asked them to look at a coin and tell them whose image was on the coin. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Then Judge Thomas asked: "In whose image, Mr. Justice, are these little children made?"

Mr. Grelen is a columnist for the Mobile Press-Register.

Jay Grelen

Jay Grelen