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THOMAS SAYS JOB KEEPS HIM ISOLATED

Clarence Thomas said Friday he's somewhat surprised at the isolation and onerousness of his Supreme Court job, and finds some public appearances similar to his grueling confirmation hearings.

The 44-year-old justice, who joined the court last fall, told a conference of judges and lawyers he misses ducking out of his office for a lunchtime walk and to pick up cheese fries.Judges are often isolated in their work, he said, but "the Supreme Court, much to my chagrin, is even more isolated."

Thomas said he has answered nearly 20,000 letters from the public in the past year.

"The letters were encouraging and continue to be encouraging," he said. "They were warm and supportive and some where downright humorous. All of them have been appreciated."

Thomas said the conference of federal judges from New York, Vermont and Connecticut at the Sagamore, an Adirondack Mountain resort, was only the second time he and his wife, Virginia, have been away from Washington, D.C., since he joined the high court.

Thomas said the court's work was harder than he expected, but he was grateful for the warmth of his fellow justices - even though he noted that warmth is often not reflected in judicial opinions.

In his 15-minute speech, Thomas made two references to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that were highlighted by law professor Anita Hill's accusations that he sexually harassed her.

Standing at a table lined with microphones, he said the setup reminded him of the hearings.

"Needless to say, it was not the most enjoyable experience of my life," he said. "But that's then, and this is now."

He also said he has often brought groups of children to meet with him at the court and is amused by the questions they ask, such as what kind of car he drives and what he thought while in the third grade.

"It sounded like a confirmation hearing," Thomas said.