U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently spoke at the Federalist Society Florida Lawyer’s Chapter Conference. His remarks were inspiring as all in attendance were treated to a fascinating dialogue between the justice and his former clerk, D.C. Circuit Judge Greg Katsas. Justice Thomas shared his life story and his journey to the Supreme Court. He also provided some insight into his judicial philosophy. The following day, there was a screening of his new documentary, “Created Equal” that further elaborated on his life story and was designed as a series of interviews with Justice Thomas. This piece will focus on some highlights and what makes Justice Thomas an American icon that should be revered in society today.
Justice Thomas begins by discussing his early life that was spent with his mother and brother growing up in the poverty of the deep south- him and his brother would often roam the streets while his mother was at work and rarely attended school. Eventually, his mother realized she was not in a strong enough position to provide for their needs and sent him and his brother off to live and be raised by his Grandfather and Grandmother. This was the first turning point in Justice Thomas’ life. His Grandfather instilled in him a sense of moral discipline, Catholic faith and hard work. In addition to attending school, the young Justice Thomas was expected to pitch in on the family farm and assist his Grandfather with oil deliveries. His Grandfather exerted “tough love” and this would enhance Justice Thomas’ early development.
Later Justice Thomas entered into the seminary and after initial reluctance, his Grandfather supported him and said if he is was going to invest himself into it, he was to complete it (a lesson he would later use during his Supreme Court hearings). While attending the seminary, however, he experienced some bouts with racism and began to question his purpose there. This was his second major turning point. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a fellow seminarian was heard lauding it and this was the last straw for Thomas. Shortly, thereafter, in the midst of the racial tension occurring in society, most notably in the deep south, he left the seminary. This act deeply strained his relationship with his Grandfather who had always encouraged Thomas to persevere and not make excuses despite the acts of others. Thomas then went to live with his mother and then later enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross for college. There he joined some special interest organizations focused on radical activism in what he described as the “Black Power Movement” and entered a rebel phase. He described being a participant in charged protests in the nearby community concerning race relations.
Although he spent considerable time with the activism, he was a good student and following graduation was admitted into Yale Law School. There he did well in school, but again was reminded of the state of race relations. He questioned his place there and whether it was more out of special treatment or for his intellectual prowess. On interviews following graduation, he found it difficult to land a job despite interviewing in several cities in what he described as country club style hiring practices. An African-American from Yale would never be viewed in the same light as a Caucasian because of the preferences questions.
He eventually found a position with Missouri Attorney General Jack Danforth in St. Louis. Justice Thomas spoke fondly of his time there and of Danforth serving as a mentor to him early in his career. This was a third major turning point in his life. Danforth would eventually be elected to the United States Senate and following his election, Thomas would work for a time at Monsanto Chemical Corporation.
Later, Justice Thomas eventually followed now-Senator Danforth to D.C. as a legislative assistant for a few years. After working up the D.C. ranks and establishing a solid network he was eventually named chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Reagan. Following his time serving in the Reagan Administration, George H.W. Bush became President and promptly named Thomas to serve as a circuit judge on the D.C. Circuit, a court widely seen as having the most influence below the Supreme Court.
Justice Thomas sat on the D.C. Circuit for a short time before Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. President Bush then had a difficult decision to make on who he would nominate to replace Marshall. Justice Thomas openly admitted when asked about being appointed as a judge, “its not something I was even looking for or wanted, but it is something God wanted, so I was obliged to follow his will.” This was another turning point in Justice Thomas’ life. President Bush decided to nominate Justice Thomas and the confirmation hearings went relatively smooth except with regards to clear partisan and awkwardly phrased questions from the senate panel in regards to the abortion issue- a common thread from the Bork hearings to Kavanaugh hearings in the present day. Justice Thomas described the experience as “you are sitting in front of questioners who have no idea what they heck they are talking about” in reference to the political hits disguised as “legal theory”. One exchange fondly recounted and shown on footage is Joe Biden trying to engage in a deep philosophical natural law question, but awkwardly phrased to try and pry an answer on abortion from Justice Thomas.
On the eve of the final vote, however, the hearings took an extreme turn. Anita Hill, a former staffer for Justice Thomas and presently a law professor made sexual harassment allegations against him. These resulted in separate hearings before the final vote with the attention of the entire nation.
Shortly before the news broke, Justice Thomas had thought it strange that the FBI had set up a follow up background call with him to ask questions. When the news eventually broke, he was befuddled about the allegations and understood them as to having no basis. He had to ask his wife, who watched the testimony provided by Hill (he did not watch) because he could not recollect any issues he had. He noted that Anita Hill had commonly solicited his help for professional opportunities stemming from her time in service under him and event went so far as to drive him to the airport following some of his presentations. In terms of the testimony itself, when Anita Hill is speaking as provided in the documentary- after the questions were asked – she commonly had looked down and had to wait a second as if to recollect a memorized statement in response to the questioning. It gave the impression that she was trained to speak certain words. In a notable exchange with a senator who pointed out some contradictions in her story such as why she sought his help and kept in contact with him despite the “allegations” for several years she responded, “you know that is a really good question, I do not even know.” There were many signs of dishonesty, but the media persisted with the narrative.
The ensuing brawl of the news media put enormous pressure on his family. Similar to the Kavanaugh hearings in the present day, his family relied on private prayer and bible study with the support of friends. The Thomas family kept their faith through the trying times and it brought them through the experience.
At one point, the hearings and confirmation were looking dim with the fueling of the mass media and a Democrat-controlled senate chamber and Thomas knew that he had to rise to the challenge. Footage in the documentary highlighted his discussion with Senator Danforth shortly before his own testimony before the final vote. As they discussed his emotions, Justice Thomas openly stated the entire experience felt like a “high-tech lynching” and Danforth encouraged him to present himself and freely speak his emotions so the Americans can see the genuine nature of Justice Thomas, a man so unfairly wronged and the “wrong black guy” per Justice Thomas’ words as a conservative. During his final testimony, he did in fact describe the entire experience as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks that dared to think in their own way.” The senators and nation were stunned by those words and statements from the heart. He edged his way to confirmation with a vote of 52-48.
As for Justice Thomas’ tenure on the Supreme Court he has become a pillar of Constitutionalism and one of the greatest judges in the modern age. There are many cases in which Justice Thomas does not shy away from an unpopular outcome or reasoning and gladly distinguishes himself from fellow judges on the bench when composing his opinions if he finds that is what the Constitution requires. We have discussed some of these opinions in detail in other pieces. He has become a rebel in this sense in a good manner channeling his energy and intellect to upholding fundamental constitutional principles despite being in the face of unfair and misinformed resistance by the media and other members of the legal academy. This mentality should be lauded. He further grasps a major premise that if a case deciding an issue was wrongly decided in the past, there is no obligation to continue to uphold bad law rather the obligation is to correct the error and make it Constitutionally compatible. He does not lose sight of where his power as a jurist flows from, the Constitution itself and reminds us that is the overarching arbiter of decision making, not policy concerns and issues best addressed by the legislature.
Overall, Justice Thomas’ talk at the Florida Federalist Society Lawyer’s Chapter and documentary, “Created Equal” were wonderful experiences and should be shown in schools and definitely can engage the interest of people in legal and in non-legal circles alike. It’s the story of a man who persevered through the obstacles faced in life in many ways, had moments when he veered off and questioned his purpose, but with God’s grace found himself to realign back on the path his Grandfather had set forth for him. His is a true American story, an icon of our time and who we all should be grateful sits on the highest court in the land. It reminds us that in America, even a poor child in the streets can one day become an iconic figure and inspire others.