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.
Justice Thomas's first term was especially interesting. He replaced legendary liberal icon Thurgood Marshall, and joined the court just a year after David Souter took William Brennan's seat. There appeared to be a solid conservative majority, with the court poised to finally dismember the liberal legacy of the Warren Court. But that year it instead lurched inexplicably to the left--even putting Roe v. Wade on more solid ground.
Justice Thomas's first year on the job brought to life the adage that a new justice makes a new court. His entry didn't merely change the vote of the liberal justice he replaced. It turned the chessboard around entirely, rearranging ideological alliances. Justice Thomas acted as a catalyst in different ways, shoring up conservative positions in some cases and spurring others--the moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in particular--to realign themselves into new voting blocs.
Consider a criminal case argued during Justice Thomas's first week. It concerned a thief's effort to get out of a Louisiana mental institution and the state's desire to keep him there. Eight justices voted to side with the thief. Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that although it "may make eminent sense as a policy matter" to let the criminal out of the mental institution, nothing in the Constitution required "the states to conform to the policy preferences of federal judges."
After he sent his dissenting opinion to the other justices, as is custom, Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Kennedy changed their votes. The case ended up 5-4.
Justice Thomas's dissents persuaded Justice Scalia to change his mind several times that year. Even in Hudson v. McMillan, the case that prompted the New York Times to infamously label Justice Thomas the "youngest, cruelest justice," he was again, initially, the lone dissenter. Justice Scalia changed his vote after he read Justice Thomas's dissent, which said a prison inmate beaten by guards had several options for redress--but not under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment."
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.