Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas

[tom-uhs for 1, 2, 4–14; taw-mah for 3]
Thomas, Clarence, 1948-, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1991-), b. Pin Point (Savannah), Ga. Raised in a poor family, he graduated (1974) from the Yale Law School and became a prominent black conservative active in Republican causes. He chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1982-90) during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and attempted there to modify the application of federal affirmative action guidelines. In 1990 he was appointed a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In July, 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court, to replace Thurgood Marshall. In Oct., 1991, when approval was all but assured, the Senate Judiciary Committee reopened confirmation hearings to examine charges by Anita Hill, a Univ. of Oklahoma law professor, that Thomas had subjected her to sexual harassment while she was an EEOC employee in the 1980s. Testimony and debate on the charges, followed by a nationwide television audience and revealing deep divisions among the public, did not in the end change the committee's recommendation for approval, and Thomas was confirmed by a full Senate vote of 52 to 48. Taking his seat, he aligned himself with Antonin Scalia, forming the Court's most conservative grouping.

See his memoir (2007).

Clarence Thomas (born June 23,1948) is an American jurist. He has been serving as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1991, the second African American to serve on the nation's highest court (after Justice Thurgood Marshall). Appointed by President George H. W. Bush, Thomas's career in the Supreme Court has seen him take a conservative approach to cases while adhering to the principle of originalism.

Early life

Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia in a small Gullah-speaking community outside Savannah. He learned to speak the Gullah languages as a child, but purposely sought to downplay the language in favor of assimilation into his English speaking class. His father left his family when he was only two years old, leaving his mother Leola Anderson to take care of the family. When Thomas was seven they went to live with his mother's father, Myers Anderson, in Savannah. He had a fuel oil business that also sold ice; Thomas often helped him make deliveries.

His grandfather believed in hard work and self-reliance and would counsel him to "never let the sun catch you in bed in the morning." In 1975, when Thomas read Race and Economics by economist Thomas Sowell, he found an intellectual foundation for this philosophy. The book criticized social reforms by government and instead argued for individual action to overcome circumstances and adversity. He was also influenced by Ayn Rand's bestselling book The Fountainhead, and would later require his staffers to watch the 1949 film version. Raised Roman Catholic (he later attended an Episcopal church with his wife, but returned to the Catholic Church in the late 1990s), Thomas considered entering the priesthood, attending St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary on the Isle of Hope near Savannah and, briefly, Conception Seminary College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. Thomas told interviewers that he left the seminary (and the call for priesthood) after overhearing a student say, in response to the news that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, "Good, I hope the SOB dies."

At the College of the Holy Cross he helped found the Black Student Union and graduated in 1971 with an A.B., cum laude in English. He then attended Yale Law School from which he received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in 1974. To Dennis Prager, Judge Thomas has stated his opinion that, in his early career, his Yale law degree was not taken seriously by law firms to which he applied, who assumed that it was obtained because of affirmative action policies.

Thomas has one child, Jamal Adeen, from his first marriage. This marriage, to Kathy Grace Ambush, lasted from 1971 until their 1984 divorce. Thomas married Virginia Lamp in 1987.

Since joining the Supreme Court, Thomas requested an annulment of his first marriage from the Roman Catholic Church, which was granted by the Tribunal of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington. He was reconciled to the Church in the mid-1990s and remains a practicing Catholic.

In 1994, Thomas performed, at his home, the wedding ceremony for radio host Rush Limbaugh's third marriage, to Marta Fitzgerald.

As his wife grew up in Nebraska and attended college at the University of Nebraska, Thomas is an avid Nebraska Cornhuskers fan who attends Husker football games, and in 2007 met with the 2006 National Championship Husker Volleyball team, telling them he bled Husker red.


Early career

From 1974 to 1977, Thomas was an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri under then State Attorney General John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 to 1979, Thomas left to become an attorney with Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri. He returned to work for Danforth from 1979 to 1981 as a Legislative Assistant. Both men shared a common bond in that both had studied to be ordained (although Thomas was Roman Catholic and Danforth was ordained Episcopalian). Danforth was to be instrumental in championing Thomas for the Supreme Court.

In 1981, he joined the Reagan administration. From 1981 to 1982, he served as Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. From 1982 to 1990 he was Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush appointed Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Supreme Court appointment

On July 1, 1991 President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall who had recently announced his retirement. Marshall had been the only African American justice on the court. The selection of Thomas preserved the existing racial composition of the court, but it was seen as likely to move the ideological balance to the right.

American Bar Association's (ABA) rating for Judge Thomas was split between "qualified" and "not qualified."

Organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Organization for Women opposed the appointment based on Thomas's criticism of affirmative action and suspicions that Thomas might not be a supporter of the Supreme Court judgment in Roe v. Wade. Under questioning during confirmation hearings, Thomas repeatedly asserted that he had not formulated a position on the Roe decision.

Some of the public statements of Thomas's opponents foreshadowed the confirmation fight that would occur. One such statement came from activist Florence Kennedy at a July 1991 conference of the National Organization for Women in New York City. Making reference to the failure of Robert Bork's nomination, she said of Thomas, "We're going to 'bork' him.

Allegations of sexual harassment

Toward the end of the confirmation hearings, information was leaked to the press from an FBI interview with Anita Hill, an attorney who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the EEOC. On October 11, 1991, Hill was called to testify during the Senate confirmation hearing.

Hill said: "He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes....On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess....Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office, he got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, 'Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?' Hill also indicated that Thomas made reference to the pornographic actor Long Dong Silver.

Hill was the only person to testify at the Senate hearings that Thomas had harassed her or engaged in inappropriate conduct. Angela Wright, who worked with Thomas at the EEOC before he fired her for impropriety, told staff of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an interview that Thomas had repeatedly made comments to her, much like those Hill says he made to her, including pressuring her for dates and commenting on her body. Wright said that Thomas made comments about her and other women's anatomy "quite often. Wright told several senators' staff that Clarence Thomas asked her the size of her breasts. Wright said that after she turned down Thomas for a date, Thomas began to express discontent with her work and eventually fired her. Rose Jourdain said that Wright had spoken to her about Thomas at the original time of the events, but never testified before the Senate committee. Jourdain said that Wright told her of "increasingly aggressive behavior" and Wright's becoming "increasingly upset and increasingly unnerved." Jourdain spoke of Thomas's comments on Wright's bra size and legs, and of how Thomas once "had the nerve" to come to Wright's home.

Another former Thomas assistant, Sukari Hardnett, wrote a letter about Thomas to the Senate committee. Although Hardnett made it clear she was not accusing Thomas of sexual harassment, she told the Judiciary Committee that "if you were young, black, female, reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.

Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, reporters for the Wall Street Journal, concluded in an investigative book on Thomas that “the preponderance of the evidence suggests” that Thomas lied under oath when he told the committee he had not harassed Hill. Mayer and Abramson say Senator Biden abdicated control of the Thomas confirmation hearings and did not call Angela Wright to the stand. According to Mayer and Abramson, four women traveled to Washington DC to corroborate Anita Hill’s claims.

According to Mayer and Abramson, soon after Thomas was sworn in, three reporters for The Washington Post “burst into the newsroom almost simultaneously with information confirming that Thomas’ involvement with pornography far exceeded what the public had been led to believe.” These reporters had eyewitness testimony and video rental records showing Thomas’ interest in and use of pornography. However, because Thomas was already sworn in by the time the video store evidence emerged, The Washington Post dropped the story. Diane Holt testified that in the years after Hill left for another job, Hill called five or six times for Thomas. Nancy Altman from the Department of Education testified that, "It is not credible that Clarence Thomas could have engaged in the kinds of behavior that Anita Hill alleges, without any of the women who he worked closest with -- dozens of us, we could spend days having women come up, his secretaries, his chief of staff, his other assistants, his colleagues -- without any of us having sensed, seen or heard something." Senator Specter said that "the testimony of Professor Hill in the morning was flat out perjury and that she specifically changed it in the afternoon when confronted with the possibility of being contradicted."

Thomas denied all allegations of sexual harassment and sexual impropriety by Hill and the others. Of the committee's investigation of the accusations, Thomas said: "This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.

After extensive debate, the committee sent the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation either way. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate with a 52-48 vote on October 15, 1991, the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century. The final floor vote was not along strictly party lines: 41 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to confirm while 46 Democrats and two Republicans (Jim Jeffords (R-VT) and Bob Packwood (R-OR)) voted to reject the nomination.

On October 23, 1991, Thomas took his seat as the 106th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Early Days on the Court

Though Thomas was immediately welcomed by most Justices, including Marshall, whom he was replacing, law clerks of the more liberal justices viewed Thomas with ill-disguised contempt, questioning his qualifications and intellectual heft. According to Jan Crawford Greenburg, Justice Blackmun allowed his clerks to refer to Christopher Landau, a Thomas clerk, as "Justice," because they saw him as the one really "running the show." Greenburg called this "a rude and glaring breach of protocol. Greenburg says that pundits' portrayal of Thomas as Scalia's understudy was grossly inaccurate - she says that from early on, it was more often Scalia changing his mind to agree with Thomas, rather than the other way around. However, Greenburg points out that the extremity of Thomas's views pushed Justices Souter, O'Connor, and Kennedy away.

Judicial philosophy

Clarence Thomas is a conservative who acknowledges having some "libertarian leanings. Thomas is often described as an originalist. Although he has been compared to Antonin Scalia, he is less devoted to precedent than Scalia, who told Thomas' biographer that Thomas "doesn't believe in stare decisis, period. If a constitutional line of authority is wrong, he would say let's get it right. In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow and Cutter v. Wilkinson, Thomas argued that the Establishment Clause was not incorporated to states by the Fourteenth Amendment, directly challenging the precedent Everson v. Board of Education. He has advocated the reversal of Roe v. Wade, joining the dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and writing the concurrence in Gonzales v. Carhart. Thomas voted with Scalia 91 percent of the time during the court's 2006–07 session. He voted with Justice John Paul Stevens the least, only 36% of the time. Justice Thomas's forceful views have pushed moderates like Sandra Day O'Connor further to the left.

Commerce Clause and states' rights

Thomas consistently supports a strict interpretation of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause and supports limits on the power of federal government in favor of states' rights. In both United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion arguing for the original meaning of the commerce clause and criticizing the substantial effects formula. He wrote a sharply worded dissent in Gonzales v. Raich, a decision that permitted the federal government to arrest, prosecute, and imprison patients who were using medical marijuana. However, he previously authored United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, an earlier case that also permitted the federal government to inspect medical marijuana dispensaries (the Oakland case dealt with the issue of medical necessity rather than federalism).

Capital punishment

Thomas was among the dissenters in both Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons, which held that the Constitution prohibited the application of the death penalty to certain classes of persons. In Kansas v. Marsh, his opinion for the court indicated a belief that the Constitution affords states broad procedural latitude in imposing the death penalty provided they remain within the limits of Furman v. Georgia and Gregg v. Georgia, the 1976 case in which the court had reversed its 1972 ban on death sentences as long as states followed certain procedural guidelines.

Fourth Amendment

In the cases regarding the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, Thomas often favors police over defendants, although not always—he was in the majority in Kyllo v. United States and wrote separately in Indianapolis v. Edmond the opinion that the Constitution does not allow random stops of drivers. His opinion for the court in Board of Education v. Earls upheld drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities, and wrote again for the court in Samson v. California, permitting random searches on parolees. He dissented in the case Georgia v. Randolph, which prohibited warrantless searches that one resident approves and the other opposes, arguing that the case was controlled by the court's decision in Coolidge v. New Hampshire.

Free speech

Among Supreme Court Justices, Thomas is typically the second most likely to uphold free speech claims (he is tied with Souter). He has voted in favor of First Amendment claims in cases involving a wide variety of issues, including pornography, campaign contributions, political leafletting, religious speech, and commercial speech. On occasion, however, he disagrees with free speech claimants. For example, he dissented in Virginia v. Black, a case that struck down a Virginia statute that banned cross-burning, and authored ACLU v. Ashcroft, which referred the Child Online Protection Act back to District Court, where COPA was overturned. In addition, Thomas believes that students have limited free speech rights in public schools, a view he expressed in his concurrence in Morse v. Frederick. In that case, he argued that the precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines should be overruled.

Executive power

Thomas has argued that the executive branch has broad powers under the constitution. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, he was the only Justice who sided entirely with the government and the Fourth Circuit's ruling, arguing for the important security interests at stake and the President's broad war-making powers. He also was one of three justices who dissented in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which held that the military commissions set up by the Bush administration to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay required explicit congressional authorization because they conflicted with both the Unified Military Code of Justice and "at least" Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.... Thomas argued that Hamdan is an illegal combatant and therefore not protected by the Geneva convention, and also agreed with Justice Scalia that the Court was "patently erroneous" in it's declaration of jurisdiction in this case.

Prisoners' Rights

In the Foucha case of Thomas's first term, Thomas dissented from the majority Supreme Court opinion removing from a mental institution a prisoner who had become sane. Thomas cast the issue as a states' rights matter.

In 1992's Hudson v. McMillan, Thomas said that injuries to a prisoner that involved a cracked lip, broken dental plate, loosened teeth, and cuts and bruises (all from what Thomas said was admittedly criminal police brutality) "did not rise to the level" of cruel and unusual punishment. Thomas's vote, the only one against the prisoner and an early example of Thomas's willingness to be the sole dissenter, would have rejected the prisoner's lawsuit had it been the majority view (Scalia later joined the opinion).

In 1992's Doggett v. United States, Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion for himself and Rehnquist to uphold the conviction of a man who was indicted on a drug charge, but then not arrested for almost nine years. Thomas wrote that dismissing the conviction "invites the Nation's [sic] judges to indulge in ad hoc and result-driven second guessing of the government's investigatory efforts. Our Constitution neither contemplates nor tolerates such a role.

Approach to oral arguments

Thomas is well-known for listening rather than asking questions during oral arguments of the Court. He has offered several reasons for this, including that he developed a habit of listening as a young man. Thomas comes from the Gullah/Geechee cultural region of coastal Georgia and is a member of this distinct African American ethnic group; he grew up speaking the Gullah language, which is a hybrid of English and various West African languages. Later in life, Thomas began to acquire an enthusiasm for his heritage, writing about it in the December 14 2000 issue of The New York Times:
"When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect. It's called Geechee. Some people call it [Gullah] now, and people praise it now. But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English. When I transferred to an all-white school at a young age, I was self-conscious, like we all are... So I...just started developing the habit of listening.

However, Jeffrey Toobin in The Nine calls into question Thomas's explanation, showing that Thomas knew how to speak English well from an early age, because he lived with his English-speaking grandfather from the age of six, attended only English-speaking parochial schools, and earned excellent school grades. The New York Times also casts doubt on Thomas's Gullah explanation.

Thomas has stated that he wishes to write a book about the Gullah culture.

Another theory, asserted by one set of Thomas biographers, is that he believes oral arguments are mostly unnecessary, and that the back-and-forth in oral arguments is often disrespectful to the attorneys trying to present their cases. (This view has been supported by Ann Scarlett, Professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, who was one of his law clerks.) The same biographers also theorize Thomas is uncomfortable in the rapid pacing of oral argument discussions, the supposition being he prefers a more cerebral, quieter environment in which to carefully contemplate matters of constitutional law.

In comments in November 2007, Thomas proffered his position on the subject: "My colleagues should shut up!" he said to an audience at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He later explained, "I don't think that for judging, and for what we are doing, all those questions are necessary", and compared his profession to the medical arts: "Suppose you're undergoing something very serious like surgery and the doctors started a practice of conducting seminars while in the operating room, debating each other about certain procedures and whether or not this procedure is this way or that way. You really didn't go in there to have a debate about gall bladder surgery."

Though Thomas is silent during most arguments before the Supreme Court, he had, up until his 16th term, spoken a few times each term. During the oral argument for NASA v. FLRA, In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), Thomas raised an issue which would become important in the opinions ("the distinction... between an element of the offense and an enhancement factor"). In Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette (1995), Virginia v. Black (2003), and Georgia v. Randolph (2006), Thomas presaged his eventual dissent with comments at oral argument.

Upon the conclusion of the 2006-2007 term of the Supreme Court, it was widely noted that Thomas had failed to utter a single word from the bench during the course of the entire term. In November 2007, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the Law Blog of the Wall Street Journal initiated the "When-Will-Justice-Thomas-Ask-a-Question Watch", noting that the justice had not asked a single question during oral arguments since February 22, 2006. February 22, 2008, marked the two year anniversary of Thomas's last question during oral argument, a milestone which was noted by several media outlets, including CNN. Another reference to his silence was made in the Boston Legal episode The Court Supreme where Denny Crane made a bet regarding whether Alan Shore could get the fictional Justice Thomas to talk.




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