Clarence Thomas

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Template:Infobox US Associate Justice Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is an American jurist and has been an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1991. He is considered to be part of the "conservative wing" in the current American court system. He is the second African American to serve on the nation's highest court, having replaced Justice Thurgood Marshall. Thomas was the youngest of the justices with whom he served from the time of his appointment to the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005.



Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, a small community outside Savannah. His father abandoned his family when he was only a year old, leaving his mother Leola Anderson, to take care of the family. At age 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. Thomas later said that the book changed his life.

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 and briefly attended Immaculate Conception Seminary, a Catholic seminary in Missouri. Thomas later attended College of the Holy Cross, where he co-founded the school's Black Student Union and received an A.B., cum laude. He received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Yale Law School in 1974.

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

Thomas performed, at his home, the wedding ceremony for conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh's third marriage, to Marta Fitzgerald. [1]

Early career

He served as Assistant Attorney General of Missouri from 1974-1977, an attorney with Monsanto from 1977-1979 and Legislative Assistant to Senator John Danforth from 1979-1981.

In 1981, he began his rise through the Reagan administration. From 1981-1982, he served as Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights in the US Department of Education ("DOE"), and as Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") from 1982-1990.

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. At first, the nomination appeared to be stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee, until a copy of a "documents request" from the committee (which at the time was controlled by the Democrats and chaired by Senator Joe Biden) was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reprinted the documents request, taking up one-quarter of the op-ed page. Shortly thereafter, Thomas's nomination was discharged from the committee. Thomas was confirmed by the Senate in March 1990.


On July 8, 1991 President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall who had recently announced his retirement.[2] Marshall had been the only black justice on the court. While the selection of Thomas preserved the existing racial balance of the court, it was seen as likely to move the ideological balance to the right. While most recent Supreme Court nominees have been deemed "well-qualified" by the American Bar Association, the rating for Justice 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 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' opponents foreshadowed the confirmation fight that would occur. One such statement came from noted feminist Florence Kennedy at a July 1991 conference of the National Organization for Women in New York City. Making reference to Robert Bork and the successful campaign against his Supreme Court nomination in 1987, she said of Thomas, "We're going to bork him." [3]

The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Thomas about his political opinions and constitutional interpretation over several days. Toward the expected end of the confirmation hearings, based on a leaked Judiciary committee FBI report[4], NPR's Nina Totenberg reported that a former colleague of Thomas, University of Oklahoma law school professor Anita Hill, had accused him of sexually harassing her when the two had worked together at the DOE and EEOC. However, seemingly contradictory statements by Anita Hill and additional testimony for Thomas by former female associates weakened the case against him. In the end, the Committee did not find sufficient evidence to corroborate Anita Hill's claim. Hill's supporters later insisted that relevant testimony from Angela Wright, a PR director for the EEOC and a witness to the alleged offensive conduct, was suppressed, even though the Democrats controlled the Senate.

Of the Committee's investigation of the Hill claims, Thomas said: far as I'm concerned, 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 US Senate rather than hung from a tree. [5]

The content of the hearings, particularly Senator Orrin Hatch's questions "[D]id you ever say in words or substance something like there is a pubic hair in my coke?" and "Did you ever use the term Long Dong Silver in conversation with Professor Hill?" rapidly became fodder for the nation's comedians.

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, making it the closest confirmation vote for a Justice in the 20th century. The vote was not strictly by party line; he received "yea" votes from 41 Republicans and 11 Democrats and "nay" votes from 46 Democrats and 2 Republicans.

Thomas took his seat on October 23, 1991.

Judicial philosophy

On the Court, Thomas has argued for an originalist or "textualist" view of the Constitution faithful to that document's text and history. Especially early in his term on the court, critics often suggested that Thomas lacked a judicial philosophy of his own, and that he unreflectingly signed on to the opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia. Although Thomas has frequently voted with Scalia, his opinions have sometimes diverged from Scalia's based on Thomas's alternative readings of Constitutional history. Scalia appears much more willing to be guided by precedent in his decisions, even when he disagrees with the precedent in question. He has said that Thomas "doesn't believe in stare decisis, period." Although both Thomas and Scalia are considered the court's conservative wing, originalism does not inherently or intrinsically favor conservative political views or liberal political views. Consequently, Thomas's originalism occasionally leads him to some surprising decisions, as discussed below.

In general, Thomas has been a proponent of an expansive First Amendment interpretation, arguing that anonymous speech, money donated to political campaigns, and commercial speech attempting to sell products all qualified for protection. In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), Thomas agreed with a majority of the Court that a law banning anonymous campaign literature violated the First Amendment. Scalia disagreed. He argued that the evidence was insufficient to conclude there was an original understanding and noted the wide popular support for laws against it. But while the Court majority based its decision on the fact that anonymity has "played an important role in the progress of mankind", Thomas filed a concurrence arguing that protection of anonymous speech was part of the original understanding of the amendment, noting that The Federalist Papers were published anonymously.

He has also taken the point of view that the Commerce Clause should be narrowly interpreted, covering only actual interstate commerce, not things related to it; he thus concurred with the Court's decisions in United States v. Lopez invalidating a federal law prohibiting possession of a firearm in a school zone. In the same vein, Justice Thomas's judicial philosophy does not encompass the Dormant Commerce Clause, the negative implication of the Commerce Clause, which is often employed to strike down protectionist legislation. See Camps Newfound/Owatonna, Inc. v. Town of Harrison (Thomas, dissenting).

Thomas also has suggested that he favors the personal right (as opposed to collective right) interpretation of the Second Amendment, suggesting that the Brady Act's background checks may have violated it. See Printz v. United States (Thomas, concurring).

In 1992, eight months after being appointed to the court, Thomas joined a dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey authored by Justice Scalia, also joined by The Chief Justice (Rehnquist) and Justice White, which concluded "that a woman's decision to abort her unborn child is not a constitutionally protected "liberty" because (1) the Constitution says absolutely nothing about it [...]." Thomas (along with Scalia and White) also concurred with a separate dissent authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist which stated "We believe that Roe was wrongly decided, and that it can and should be overruled consistently with our traditional approach to stare decisis in constitutional cases."

Thomas has followed a narrow construction of the Eighth Amendment. In Hudson v. McMillian (1992), he dissented, arguing that the beating of a Louisiana inmate by three prison guards was not cruel and unusual punishment. Thomas wrote that the beating, which left Hudson with minor bruises, facial swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate, did not cause sufficient harm to meet the constitutional standard; however, he left open the option of a criminal charge or a tort claim, just not a constitutional claim. "In my view, a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment.' In concluding to the contrary, the Court today goes far beyond our precedents."

Thomas has carved out a distinctive voice for himself on the highly-charged racial issues before the Court. In Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), the Court overturned a lower court ruling forcing the city of Kansas City, Missouri to spend more money on their predominantly black school system to attract white suburban children. Thomas filed a separate concurrence where he argued "'Racial isolation' itself is not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is," and that integration assumed that blacks could not get ahead on their own.

In Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995), Thomas commented on affirmative action: "I write express my disagreement with the premise...that there is a racial paternalism exception to the principle of equal protection...That these programs may have been motivated, in part, by good intentions cannot provide refuge from the principle that under our Constitution, the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race. As far as the Constitution is concerned, it is irrelevant whether a government's racial classifications are drawn by those who wish to oppress a race or by those who have a sincere desire to help those thought to be disadvantaged. There can be no doubt that the paternalism that appears to lie at the heart of this program is at war with the principle of inherent equality that underlies and infuses our Constitution. See Declaration of Independence ('We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness')."

In United States v. Fordice (1992), he agreed that Mississippi had not done enough to desegregate its colleges and universities. But he added that increased integration could hurt historically black colleges. "It would be ironic, to say the least, if the institutions that sustained blacks during segregation were themselves destroyed in an effort to combat its vestiges," he wrote.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he voted to uphold an Ohio school voucher plan. "While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society," he wrote. "As Thomas Sowell noted 30 years ago: Most black people have faced too many grim, concrete problems to be romantics."

In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Thomas dissented from the Court's decision striking down Texas's sodomy laws, stating that although he felt the laws were "uncommonly silly" and deserved to be repealed, these matters would be best left to the legislature or the public, not the courts.

In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), Thomas was the only justice who sided with the government and the Fourth Circuit's ruling, based on his view of the important security interests at stake and the President's broad war-making powers.

Thomas is frequently at odds with the majority of the court, often found at the dissenting end of many a 7-2 or 8-1 opinion. In 2003, for example, he was on the dissenting side of 21 of the 41 contested (non-unanimous) cases, making him the most frequently dissenting justice of the term, followed by Justice Scalia with 16 dissents. (Source: New York Times, 7/1/03)

Unexpected Rulings

In some cases, Thomas’s commitment to a textualist and originalist philosophy leads him to take a position some find surprising. His supporters say this proves Thomas is not an ideologue or a results-oriented Justice.

For example, in United States v. Hubbell (2000), the Court heard a case involving Webster Hubbell, who had been indicted for various fraud charges based on his own documents that the government had subpoenaed. Even though the Fifth Amendment provides that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” the Supreme Court has, since 1976, applied the so-called “act-of-production doctrine.” Under this doctrine, a person can invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against the production of documents only where the very act of producing the documents is incriminating in itself. Thomas wrote a separate concurrence, however, examining a wide range of historical materials on the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment. He concluded that the Constitution should protect against the “compelled production not just of incriminating testimony, but of any incriminating evidence.” In other words, the government should not ever be allowed to subpoena a private person's papers and documents in order to build a criminal case against him.

Another example is Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), in which the Court considered whether New Jersey’s hate crime statute was unconstitutional. Under this law, once the jury had decided guilt for the underlying crime, the prosecutor could obtain an increased sentence merely by proving the “hate” motive to a judge at sentencing (where the standard of proof was merely "preponderance of the evidence"). The Supreme Court held that this practice was unconstitutional, because the Constitution’s right to trial by jury requires that any factor which increases a defendant’s sentence beyond a statutory maximum has to be proven to a jury "beyond a reasonable doubt". Again, though, Thomas wrote separately. In his concurrence (which was joined by Scalia), he argued that any facts that might increase a sentence (not just those that increase it beyond the statutory maximum) should have to be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt".

Another example is United States v. Bajakajian (1998), in which Thomas and four other justices wrote the first opinion ever to strike down a federal statute as violating the Eighth Amendment’s “excessive fines” clause. The Court decided that it was an “excessive fine” under the Eighth Amendment for the government to seize $357,144 in cash from an airport traveler on his way to a foreign country. The man was not a drug courier or a money launderer, and his only crime was that he failed to report to the government that he was carrying more than $10,000 out of the country. Thomas looked to the history and origin of the Excessive Fines Clause, along with 18th-century congressional enactments and 17th-century English cases, in order to conclude that the fine was excessive in proportion to the harm that the government sustained.

Then, in Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000), the Court struck down a police program that stopped drivers and searched for drugs. The Court, however, took pains to distinguish this case from earlier roadblock cases in which it had upheld police stops to search for drunk drivers and illegal aliens. While Thomas joined Chief Justice Rehnquist's dissent (as did Justice Scalia) on the grounds that the case was controlled by the earlier roadblock cases, Thomas also wrote separately; in his short dissent, he stated that he was "not convinced" that the precedents had been correctly decided, but that since the respondents did not argue for overruling them, he was "reluctant" to overturn them. As for the roadblocks, he stated that "I rather doubt that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have considered 'reasonable' a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing."

Approach to oral arguments

Thomas is well-known for listening rather than actively participating during oral arguments of the Court. He has offered several reasons for this, but the most strongly-supported of which is 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 Geechee dialect, which is a hybrid of English and various West African languages. Thomas acquired 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 your age, I was self-conscious, like we all are... So I...just started developing the habit of listening."[6]

Thomas has stated that he wishes to write a book about the culture. [7]

Though Thomas is silent during most arguments before the Supreme Court, he has spoken a few times each term [8]. During the oral argument for NASA v. FLRA, 527 U.S. 229 (1999), Thomas engaged in a seven minute long, uninterrupted colloquy - it is almost unheard of in recent years for this to happen without interruption by another justice. In Apprendi, Thomas raised an issue which would become important in the opinions ("the distinction . . . between an element of the offense and an enhancement factor"); in Virginia v. Black, [538 U.S. 343] (2003), Thomas presaged his eventual dissent with comments at oral argument, and similarly, in Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753 (1995).


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