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January 22, 2007

At Last We Obtain Shangri La...

Long suffering time readers of VC who have wallowed in the dubious pleasures of our Law Archives may have observed that a favorite subject of the half vast editorial staff is none other than one Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice:

We confess the very sight of Justice Thomas makes us feel warm and fuzzy all over. But oddly, he seems to inspire our Lefty friends to flights of hyperbole.

Thomas. Mein Gott Im Himmel!, who would have guessed it! That pudgy, avuncular-looking little man, suddenly rising up in his black robes like the Lord of the Nazgul. Stooping to pick at the flesh of a Woman's Right To Choose and grabbing welfare dollars from the hands of baby-Daddies all over this great nation! Sure, he may look like a teddy bear, but he's [[[shudder]]] worse than Scalia!

Back in July we wondered whether our favorite Justice would ever get the respect he deserved? Happily for us, the ever-observant mr rdr paused from his Herculean labors lobbying Heathens in the Stygian fields and peeling the Commerce Clause like an onion to send us the following glad tidings of our hero:

Clarence Thomas has borne some of the most vitriolic personal attacks in Supreme Court history. But the persistent stereotypes about his views on the law and subordinate role on the court are equally offensive -- and demonstrably false. An extensive documentary record shows that Justice Thomas has been a significant force in shaping the direction and decisions of the court for the past 15 years.

That's not the standard storyline. Immediately upon his arrival at the court, Justice Thomas was savaged by court-watchers as Antonin Scalia's dutiful apprentice, blindly following his mentor's lead. It's a grossly inaccurate portrayal, imbued with politically incorrect innuendo, as documents and notes from Justice Thomas's very first days on the court conclusively show. Far from being a Scalia lackey, the rookie jurist made clear to the other justices that he was willing to be the solo dissenter, sending a strong signal that he would not moderate his opinions for the sake of comity. By his second week on the bench, he was staking out bold positions in the private conferences where justices vote on cases. If either justice changed his mind to side with the other that year, it was Justice Scalia joining Justice Thomas, not the other way around.

Much of the documentary evidence for this comes from the papers of Justice Harry Blackmun, who recorded the justices' votes and took detailed notes explaining their views. I came across vivid proof while reading the papers as part of my research for a book about how the Rehnquist Court -- a court with seven justices appointed by Republican presidents -- evolved into an ideological and legal disappointment for conservatives.

Over and over again through the years we have been impressed with Thomas' quiet reasoning. He seeks not to dazzle with his wit but to carefully, sensibly step through the law crafting well grounded opinions written in spare language that is accessible to ordinary citizens. It is not that, as Harry Reid so baldly put it, he cannot express himself eloquently; for we have heard him do so on several occasions. It is, rather, that he strives for brevity and clarity in his legal writing: qualities that are all too rare in judicial opinions. In this, as in so many other areas, Thomas shows his determination to do things his own way:

From the beginning, Justice Thomas was an independent voice. His brutal confirmation hearings only enforced his autonomy, making him impervious to criticism from the media and liberal law professors. He'd told his story, and no one listened. From then on, he did not care what they said about him.

Clarence Thomas, for example, is the only justice who rarely asks questions at oral arguments. One reason is that he thinks his colleagues talk too much from the bench, and he prefers to let the lawyers explain their case with fewer interruptions. But his silence is sometimes interpreted as a lack of interest, and friends have begged him to ask a few questions to dispel those suggestions. He refuses to do it. "They have no credibility," he says of critics. "I am free to live up to my oath."

But the forcefulness and clarity of Justice Thomas's views, coupled with wrongheaded depictions of him doing Justice Scalia's bidding, created an internal dynamic that caused the court to make an unexpected turn in his first year. Justice O'Connor -- who sought ideological balance -- moved to the left. With the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the court now is poised to finally fulfill the hopes of the conservative movement. As George W. Bush told his legal advisers early in his presidency, he wanted justices in "the mold of Thomas and Scalia." Interestingly, on President Bush's marquee, Justice Thomas got top billing.

Interestingly enough, Justice Thomas got top billing in another marquee recently. Go figure.

Posted by Cassandra at January 22, 2007 09:11 PM

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The shame. I confess to liking a certain professor of economics...Dr. Williams.
Glasses and all.

Posted by: Cricket at January 22, 2007 10:32 PM

"Clarence Thomas, for example, is the only justice who rarely asks questions at oral arguments."

Actions speak louder than words, y'know?

Posted by: camojack at January 23, 2007 12:42 AM

Yet another round of Knowledgeable People Realize That the Prevailing Wisdom expressed in the Main Stream Media doesn't match Reality.

I sometimes ask myself why I am so automatically skeptical of most news agencies...then things like this happen, and reaffirm the skepticism.

Posted by: karrde at January 23, 2007 08:55 AM

Oh, the irony. Thomas spends an unfortunate amount of his time voting (often unsuccessfully) unconstitutional laws Bush signed or his attorney general is attempting to enforce.

I'll be leaving now.

Posted by: KJ at January 29, 2007 02:31 PM

If I were you, I'd be running.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 29, 2007 02:37 PM

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