This weekend, Justice Clarence Thomas celebrated his 70th birthday. As a nation, we should come to appreciate the great work he has done during his tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court. His consistent adherence to Constitutionalist values and principle makes him one of the greatest judges of the modern age.
When I was in high school and became actively interested in law, I always had a respect for Justice Thomas, mainly because he would serve as the late great Justice Scalia’s wing man of sorts in many notable Supreme Court decisions. I respected him, but did not truly appreciate his contributions and his role on the court until reading his memoir “My Grandfather’s Son”, which is one of the greatest books I have every read, and in law school when I dissected several of his opinions. In an interesting irony, although I was a great admirer of Justice Scalia and agreed with much of his legal reasoning and opinions, I often found myself being more persuaded by Justice Thomas’s analysis in his opinions. Both have gained my respect, but the consistent historical approach and strict originalism of Justice Thomas was an ever so slight deciding factor for me.
One of Justice Thomas’ greatest opinions in my view is his dissent in the notable marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Putting aside the debate of the outcome of the case, I would like to draw attention to one of his lines in the opinion that speaks volumes about the role of judges and the direction of Constitutional law. He states, “by straying from the text of the Constitution, substantive due process exalts judges at the expense of the People from whom they derive their authority.” This is a similar argument used by another judge I admire, the late Robert Bork. As stated in prior posts, the flawed doctrine of substantive due process essentially provides a blank check to the judiciary to craft their own meaning to what should constitute due process. In many cases involving this doctrine, the decision of the judges takes away the voice of the people on various issues that were meant to be decided by states, such as marriage in this situation. However, we should also focus on the second half of the clause that emphasizes judges derive their authority from the people and in turn the Constitution that the people ratified. When flawed doctrines such as substantive due process replace the voice of democracy, this endangers Constitutional law. Justice Thomas has been consistent in championing this concept during his tenure on the court.
I am inspired by Justice Thomas’s brilliant legal mind through his opinions, but also in coming to understand the person of Justice Thomas by reading his book. This is a man that has dealt with adversity his entire life, but each time responded and triumphed despite the odds, lies and animosity demonstrated against him.
Growing up he was raised by his grandparents because of a difficult family situation. His grandparents installed strong values in him that he would later use to persevere through the darker stages of his later life. After leaving the seminary and entering college he was confronted with racism by other students and embraced activism. He still fought through it and became a top student, eventually making it to Yale Law school where he excelled.
During later stages of his life, however, he battled alcoholism and unhealthy relationships. Eventually after a lost phase, he began to drift back towards the moral center in which he was raised. He eventually became a federal judge and later a Supreme Court justice with gathering support of friends along the way.
However, his Supreme Court hearings were a true test, one that was among the most difficult with the slanderous testimony of Anita Hill in an attempt to sink his nomination, despite the work he did in mentoring her as a young attorney. The media ran with her fictious accounts, but fortunately failed to sink the nomination and he has become one of the greatest judges in the modern day. His experience however, was described as a “high-tech lynching.” However, the true assessment of champions is how they respond to the adversity confronting them. He persevered through his experience and was determined to not allow the distortion machine to run its course and cost him a seat on the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, these difficult experiences forged Justice Thomas into the powerful individual and ardent Constitutionalist he remains to this day. Instead of breaking down and recoiling in fear of the adverse treatment, he persevered and did not allow the outside noise to dictate who he was as a person.
This is an inspiring example and one that people should emulate whether they are a Constitutionalist, Living Constitutionalist or Conservative, Liberal. Happy 70th Justice Thomas and may you continue to inspire.