THE Supreme Court's work extends to every facet of life in the United States. Each year the high court considers more than 4,000 applications for review and renders decisions in approximately 160 cases. Plainly, a Supreme Court nominee's qualifications must be considered against the broad range of issues that the justice will confront, not only this year but for many years to come.Because of these realities, the Senate confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas should not be focused exclusively on abortion or racial quotas. They should explore Judge Thomas's judicial fitness, measured by his independence, integrity, ability, and life experience. Evaluated under these traditional standards, Clarence Thomas is an excellent choice for the Supreme Court. Diversity of experience is an important qualification for a judge on any court. Thomas's story is an impressive one. Raised in an environment of discrimination and deprivation, but educated by family members and teachers committed to the values of discipline and scholarship, he attended Holy Cross and Yale Law School. In a course on federal taxation - among the most daunting courses a law student faces - Thomas's examination answers were held up by the professor as a model for the rest of the students. After law school, Thomas worked as a lawyer in the private sector, served as an assistant attorney general in Missouri, joined Sen. John Danforth's staff in Washington, and served as assistant secretary in the Department of Education. As chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Thomas rehabilitated an agency that had earned harsh criticism from the General Accounting Office, boosting both the efficiency and morale of his staff. Perhaps the best measure of Thomas's judicial fitness is his record as a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, second in importance only to the Supreme Court. Although he has served for only one year, Thomas has participated in deciding more than 100 appeals and has written majority opinions in more than 20 cases. His opinions are concise and clear, written with recognition that the public is entitled to practical guidance from appellate judges. At a time when the war against drugs and violent street crime are of nationwide concern, it is reassuring to see Judge Thomas's mastery of criminal law. His opinions show a reluctance to reverse criminal convictions on legal technicalities, but a readiness to set aside convictions that are unsupported by the evidence. Judge Thomas has dealt sternly with drug dealers in several opinions, including his affirmance of a conviction of drug traffickers plying their wares in an "open air drug bazaar" in the nat ion's capital (US v. Rogers). A judge who is tough on crime but alert to unfairness in the criminal justice system will not appear outside the mainstream of American opinion. The Supreme Court sits atop a pyramid of agencies and bureaus that regulate the private enterprise system, and it makes law in business disputes under a host of constitutional and statutory provisions. Because its jurisdiction as a business regulator is nationwide and its word final, the Supreme Court has much to do with the competitiveness and prosperity of our economy. Thomas has delivered a series of thoughtful opinions in business cases. In one widely publicized antitrust case (US v. Baker Hughes Inc .), he thoroughly refuted the Bush administration's economic analysis. Some critics have found troubling Thomas's scholarly writing on constitutional interpretation, including his references to "natural-law" reasoning, a legacy of the framers of the Declaration of Independence, who believed certain fundamental principles of liberty and equality to be self-evident. Thomas's sympathy for natural-law reasoning derives from the founders of the Constitution and the writings of Abraham Lincoln. If special-interest advocates are uneasy about this tradition, it is a reflection of their own distance from the American mainstream. Thomas's sharpest opposition comes from certain leaders of the civil rights movement who have criticized his views on quotas and racial preferences. But this difference over one facet of the civil rights agenda should not obscure Thomas's accomplishments as a crusader for racial justice. As he explained in one of his prior Senate confirmation hearings: "The reason I became a lawyer was to make sure that minorities, individuals who did not have access to the society, gained access." Those who know him best, such as the liberal dean of the Yale Law School, Guido Calabresi, and Margaret Bush Wilson, former national chair of the NAACP, predict that Thomas's confirmation will advance the cause of civil rights. In Dean Calabresi's words, "He is a decent human being, who cares profoundly for his fellows.... [He] does know the deep need of the poor and especially of poor blacks, and wants to help." As chairman of the EEOC, Clarence Thomas went to court on behalf of victims of racial discrimination far more often than his predecessors. He adopted a new policy of bringing every meritorious case to litigation and insisted on tough new sanctions for violators. During his tenure as EEOC chairman, he collected nearly $1 billion on behalf of American workers. And he chastised the Reagan administration for what he believed to be tardiness in pursuing voting rights reform. Significantly, Thomas's own experience with racial discrimination is not confined to abstract theory. As he explained in a recent interview, ve showed up in some of the nicest places in this city [Washington, D.C.]. You walk in one of the top-of-the-line restaurants, people look at you like you're out of your mind.... In my own neighborhood, I used to get stopped by the cops." Experiences such as these are not likely to be forgotten by a newly appointed Supreme Court justice, nor are they likely to be du plicated by another nominee if Thomas is rejected. Thomas's opposition to quotas and racial preferences arises not from a reluctance to challenge discrimination, but from an honest disagreement over the best means to achieve racial equality. Racial preferences, in his view, result in unfair reverse discrimination, while perpetuating dependence upon a welfare state. Only the most rigid advocates of racial quotas and preferences would suggest that Thomas's views are disqualifying for a position on the Supreme Court. Most Americans, who support the goal of a color-blind legal system, agree with his assessment. PERSONAL attacks on Judge Thomas, voiced in the press in recent weeks, do little to advance the search for the nominee's judicial qualifications. Florence Kennedy, a pro-choice advocate, is quoted as stating that "we're going to Bork him. We're going to kill him politically." Thomas himself appears to be braced for the worst. As he commented in a recent interview, "When you're up before those confirmation hearings, it's like going through Dante's Inferno. ... When you get up there, you just hope that you don't get destroyed so that even if you don't make it, you can go on with your life." Lobbyists who fuel this inferno may well do more harm to their own credibility than to the nominee. Clarence Thomas's career as a public servant and his personal triumph over poverty and discrimination make it impossible to credibly characterize him as a reactionary jurist insensitive to racial justice.