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Thomas, Clarence

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Significance: The second African American to become a justice of the Supreme Court, Thomas has been one of the most consistently conservative justices to serve on the Court since the New Deal era.


A descendant of Georgia slaves, Clarence Thomas grew up speaking the Geechee dialect, a mixture of English and several West African languages. At the age of two, his father left his mother, and a few years thereafter he and his brother moved to Savannah, Georgia, to live with grandparents, who instilled in him the values of hard work, self-reliance, and ambition. He was a good student in high school, and after graduating cum laude at the College of the Holy Cross, he attended the Yale University Law School, graduating in 1974. There has been inconclusive debate about whether he benefited from affirmative action policies during his education. After his graduation, Thomas became an assistant attorney general for Missouri attorney general John Danforth. Three years later he joined the Monsanto Corporation's law firm. In 1979, Danforth, then a U.S. senator, hired Thomas as a legislative assistant. Two years later Thomas was appointed assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education by President Ronald Reagan. From 1982 to 1990, Thomas served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from 1982 to 1990. At the EEOC, he established a conservative reputation as a result of his attempts to limit affirmative action programs, particularly the use of racial and ethnic preferences.


Appointment to the Supreme Court

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush appointed Thomas to the court of appeals for the District of Columbia. The next year, after Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement, President Bush, looking for a conservative African American as his successor, nominated Thomas on July 8, 1990. The confirmation hearings for Thomas created great controversy and unprecedented public interest. Liberal and civil rights organizations denounced the nomination. The American Bar Association rated Thomas between “qualified” and “not qualified.” When grilled by the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas often appeared evasive, even more than most other candidates. His liberal critics expressed skepticism about his answers, especially his claim never to have discussed the abortion issue in law school. Just as it was begin to appear that he would be relatively easily confirmed toward the end of the hearings, University of Oklahoma law professor and former EEOC attorney Anita Hill accused Thomas of having practiced sexual harassment. Denying her accusations, Thomas charged his critics of conducting “a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks.” On October 15, 1991, the U.S. Senate confirmed him to the Supreme Court by a 52-48 vote, the closest margin of approval in more than a century.


Jurisprudence and Decisions

Thomas's constitutional jurisprudence combined a commitment to natural rights with the doctrines of “textualism” and “originalism,” focusing on the literal words of the text informed by the original intent of its framers. In addition, Thomas demonstrated a strong commitment to individualism and strong distrust of federal power and modern secularism. His views most often coincided with those of Justice Antonin Scalia, except that Thomas was less inclined to defer to the precedents of the Court (called the doctrine of stare decisis). Advocating color-blind governmental policies, Thomas found nothing wrong with de facto racial segregation, insisting that only de jure (or state-enforced) segregation was unconstitutional. In his concurrence in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), he wrote that the goal of integration falsely “assumed that blacks could not get ahead on their own.” He consistently opposed all race-based preferences, declaring in Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995) that there is no “racial paternalism exception to the principle of equal protection.” When examining race-based policies for university admissions in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), he rejected the rationale of racial diversity as “a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti.” Likewise, he wrote a long concurrence in Holder v. Hall (1994), opposing special efforts to establish electoral districts dominated by minorities, which he denounced as “nothing short of a system of ‘political apartheid.’” Concerning the constitutional right of privacy, Thomas has frequently declared that the Fourteenth Amendment protects only those “liberty interests” that were “deeply rooted in the nation's history.” Thus, he agreed with the Court's ruling that government may not prohibit married persons from purchasing contraceptives. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), in contrast, he joined the dissenters who insisted that Constitution did not protect a woman's right to have an abortion. Dissenting in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), when the Court struck down a Texas law outlawing homosexual practices, he wrote that the law was “uncommonly silly” but not unconstitutional. Thomas has firmly supported states’ rights under the Tenth Amendment, while concomitantly taking a narrow view of Congress's powers under the commerce clause. In United States v. Lopez (1995), he joined the majority in holding that states may not regulate local activities, such as firearms in school zones. In a concurrence, he wrote that the New Deal Court had “drifted far from the original understanding of the commerce clause.” Likewise, in Printz v. United States (1997), he found that the Brady Bill violated both the commerce clause and the Tenth Amendment. He further argued that the bill might violate the Second Amendment, which conferred a “personal right” to keep and bear arms. Thomas has almost always agreed with the pro-law-and-order perspective. Applying the Eighth Amendment narrowly in Hudson v. McMillan (1992), he dissented, arguing that the beating of a prison inmate by three guards did not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), he disagreed with the majority's view on the unconstitutionality of executing minors. In Rasul v. Bush (2004), he again joined the dissenters who wanted to deny habeas corpus relief in federal court to foreign citizens held at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. On other issues as well, Thomas could normally be counted on to vote for the conservative viewpoint. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), for example, he supported a lowering of the wall between church and state by enthusiastically endorsing the use of tax-supported vouchers for use in parochial school. In cases such as Kelo v. City of New London (2005), he construed the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment as providing broad protection for private property. In the controversial case, Bush v. Gore (2000), he joined with the majority's decision to stop the recount of popular votes in Florida, a decision that his critics found to be inconsistent with his theories of federalism and the Constitution's original understanding.



Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Davis, Richard. Electing Justice: Fixing the Supreme Court Nomination Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Foskett, Ken. Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Gerber, Scott Douglas. First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
  • Greenya, John. Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story. Ft. Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2001.
  • Hensley, Thomas R. The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2006.
  • Marcosson, Samuel A. Original Sin: Clarence Thomas and the Failure of the Constitutional Conservatives. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • Mayer, Jane, and Jill Abramson. Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
  • Smith, Christopher, and Joyce Baugh. The Real Clarence Thomas: Confirmation Veracity Meets Performance Reality. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
  • Thomas, Andrew P. Clarence Thomas: A Biography. New York: Encounter Press, 2002.