Clarence Thomas

(1948-  )

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Clarence Thomas

(1948-  )

Background and Early Years

Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Ga., a small community outside Savannah, Ga., on June 23, 1948. His father abandoned his family when he was only two years 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 an oil-fuel 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. He was also influenced by Ayn Rand's bestselling book The Fountainhead, and would later require his staffers to watch the 1949 film version. The plot describes an architect's struggle to maintain his integrity against the forces of conformity, something Thomas could relate to his own career in the U.S. government.

Raised Roman Catholic (he later attended an Episcopal church with his wife, but returned to the Church of Rome in the late 1990s), Thomas considered entering the priesthood. He attended St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary on the Isle of Hope near Savannah and, briefly, Conception Seminary College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. Thomas told interviewers that he left the seminary and the call for priesthood after overhearing a student say, "Good, I hope the s**o**b**th dies," when it was announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot.

In 1968, Clarence Thomas responded to a minority recruitment program and enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic school in Worcester, Mass. There, he helped found the Black Student Union, and in 1971, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree in English. He then attended Yale Law School from which he received a juris doctorate degree in 1974.

Thomas married Kate Ambush in 1971 and together they had one child, Jamal Adeen. In 1984, the two divorced. Later, in 1987, Thomas married Virginia Lamp. Thomas' nephew was convicted of pointing a gun at another person in 1997, and as a result the courts granted permission for Thomas to take custody of his nephew’s son, who was only six years old at the time.

Church and State

Since joining the Supreme Court, Thomas requested an annulment of his first marriage from the Roman Catholic Church, which was granted by the Tribunal of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

In 1994, the ordained minister, Thomas, performed the wedding ceremony for radio host Rush Limbaugh's third marriage to Marta Fitzgerald at his home,

Because Thomas’ wife, Virginia, grew up in Nebraska and attended college there, Thomas is an avid Nebraska Cornhuskers fan. He attends Husker football games, and in 2007, he met with the 2006 National Championship Husker Volleyball team, telling them he bled Husker red.

From 1974 to 1977, Thomas was an assistant attorney general of Missouri under the state Attorney General John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1989, Thomas left to become an attorney with Monsanto, a firm in St. Louis. He returned to work for Danforth from 1979 to 1981 as a legislative assistant. Both men shared a common bond that they had studied to be ordained clergymen. Danforth soon became instrumental in rallying for Thomas for a position on the Supreme Court. In 1981, he began his rise through the Reagan administration. From 1981 to 1982, he served as assistant secretary of education for the Office of Civil Rights in the US Department of Education and as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990.

Justice Status

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

On July 2, 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, who had recently announced his retirement as a Supreme Court judge. Marshall had been the only Black justice on the court until Thomas.

The American Bar Association's rating for Thomas was split between "qualified" and "not qualified." The ABA, however, has no official standing in the nomination or confirmation process of a judge. Some organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the National Organization for Women opposed the appointment based on Thomas's criticism of causes like affirmative action and suspicions that Thomas might not be a supporter of the Supreme Court judgment of Roe v. Wade. After being questioned during confirmation hearings, Thomas repeatedly asserted that he had not formulated a position on the Roe decision.

Some public statements of Thomas' opponents foreshadowed the confirmation-to-judge debate that would occur. One such statement came from activist Florence Kennedy at a July of 1991 conference of the National Organization for Women in New York City. Making reference to the failure of Robert Bork's nomination, she said of Thomas, "We're going to 'bork' him." The term has since become a part of the American political lexicon.

Toward the end of the confirmation hearings, National Public Radio's Supreme Court correspondent, 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.

Of the Committee's investigation of Hill's accusations, Thomas said: “I think that this today is a travesty. I think that it is disgusting. I think that this hearing should never occur in America. This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt was searched for by staffers of members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it at prime time over our entire nation…The Supreme Court is not worth it. No job is worth it. I am not here for that. I am here for my name, my family, my life, and my integrity. I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country when any person, any person in this free country would be subjected to this. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a Black-American, 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.

After extensive debate, 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, the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century. The final floor vote was not along strictly party lines: 41 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to confirm while 46 Democrats and 2 Republicans voted to reject the nomination. On October 23, 1991, Thomas took his seat as the 106th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Conservatism and Clarence

Thomas is a conservative who admits to having some "libertarian leanings." Thomas is often described as an originalist. Although he has been often compared with Antonin Scalia, he is less devoted to precedent than Scalia, who told Thomas' biographer that Thomas "doesn't believe in stare decisis, period. If a constitutional line of authority is wrong, he would say let's get it right." In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow and Cutter v. Wilkinson, Thomas argued that the Establishment Clause was not incorporated to states by the 14th Amendment, directly challenging the precedent Everson v. Board of Education. He has advocated the reversal of Roe v. Wade, joining the dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and writing the concurrence in Gonzales v. Carhart. Justice Thomas' judicial philosophy is most similar to Justice Scalia's. He has voted with Scalia 91% of the time during the court's 2006-2007 session.

Thomas consistently supports a strict interpretation of the Constitution's interstate commerce clause and supports limits on the power of federal government in favor of states' rights. In both United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison, Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion arguing for the original meaning of the commerce clause and criticizing the substantial effects formula. He wrote a sharply worded dissent in Gonzales v. Raich, a decision that permitted federal government to arrest, prosecute and imprison patients who were using medical marijuana. However, he previously authored United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, an earlier case that also permitted the federal government to inspect medical marijuana dispensaries. In his Gonzales v. Carhart concurrence, he intimated that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act might have been beyond Congress' authority to enact under the commerce clause.

Similar to Scalia, Thomas takes a narrow view of the substantive limitations imposed by the Constitution on the use of capital punishment; he was among the dissenters in both Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons, which held that the Constitution prohibited the application of the death penalty to certain classes of persons. In Kansas v. Marsh, his opinion for the court indicated a belief that the Constitution affords states broad procedural latitude in imposing the death penalty provided they remain within the limits of Furman v. Georgia and Gregg v. Georgia.

In the cases regarding the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, Thomas often favors law enforcement over defendants, although not always. He was in the majority in Kyllo v. United States and wrote separately in Indianapolis v. Edmond the opinion that the Constitution does not allow random stops of drivers. His opinion for the court in Board of Education v. Earls upheld drug testing for students involved in extracurricular activities, and he wrote again for the court in Samson v. California, to permit random searches on parolees. He dissented in the case Georgia v. Randolph, which prohibited warrantless searches, that one resident approves and the other opposes and he argued that the case was controlled by the court's decision in Coolidge v. New Hampshire.

Among Supreme Court Justices, Thomas is typically the second most likely to uphold free speech claims. He has voted in favor of First Amendment claims in cases involving a wide variety of issues, including pornography, campaign contributions, political leafleting, religious speech and commercial speech. On occasion, however, he disagrees with free speech claimants. For example, he dissented in Virginia v. Black, a case that struck down a Virginia statute that banned cross-burning, and he authored ACLU v. Ashcroft, upholding the Child Online Protection Act. In addition, Thomas does not believe that students possess any right to free speech in public schools, a view he expressed in his concurrence in Morse v. Frederick. In that case, he argued that the precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines should be overruled.

Thomas is well-known for listening rather than actively asking questions during oral arguments of the Court. He has offered several reasons for this, the strongest 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 Black ethnic group; he grew up speaking the Gullah language, which is a hybrid of English and various West African languages. Later in life, Thomas began to acquire an enthusiasm for his heritage writing about it in the December 14, 2000 issue of The New York Times. Thomas has stated that he wishes to write a book about the culture.

Another theory, asserted by one set of Thomas biographers, is that Justice Thomas believes oral arguments are mostly unnecessary, and that the back-and-forth in oral arguments is often disrespectful to the attorneys trying to present their cases. The same biographers also theorize Thomas is uncomfortable in the rapid pacing of oral argument discussions, the supposition being he prefers a more cerebral, quieter environment in which to carefully contemplate matters of constitutional law. Although Thomas is silent during most arguments before the Supreme Court, he has spoken a few times each term.

Sources:;  Merida K, Fletcher M, "Supreme Discomfort," Washington Post Magazine, August 4, 2002;;; Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, October 11, 1991; Hall, Kermit (ed), The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, page 871, Oxford Press, 1992; Kauffman B., "Clarence Thomas", Reason Magazine, November 1987; "A Big Question About Clarence Thomas," The Washington Post, October 14, 2004; Greenhouse, Linda."In Steps Big and Small, Supreme Court, Moved Right," New York Times, July 1, 2007.

Posted By: Guest Visitor
Friday, December 7th 2007 at 3:31PM

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