Narrowly Defined Image Belies Jurist's Quiet Clout
This is the Clarence Thomas rarely seen -- the maneuvering mentor and political adviser, a justice who's far more engaged in official Washington than he lets on. From his oak-paneled suite on the court's first floor, Thomas keeps tabs on the capital's gossip, dispenses advice to his understudies, chats up commentators -- he goes to Baltimore Orioles games with George Will -- and even phones senators to lobby for Democratic judicial nominees. Few ever know.Thomas's Across-the-Aisle Aid Puzzles Even the Beneficiaries
Clarence Thomas confounds many who call on him for the first time. They expect to see one of the images they have heard about -- the rigid ideologue, the neutered justice disconnected from his race, Antonin Scalia's puppy. Instead, they are often surprised.Yale Law Lacks Portrait -- And Thomas's Goodwill
"It was totally baffling to me," U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said of her visit to Thomas's chambers in June 1998. "I didn't know how to take it." Here she was, a black woman whose federal judicial nomination by President Bill Clinton was held up for a year by Republicans. As president of the black lawyers association in Detroit, Roberts actively opposed the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of one of the right's judicial icons, former federal judge Robert H. Bork -- plenty of reason for retribution a decade later, Roberts said she was told.
Roberts was sent to Thomas by Damon Keith, a senior judge on the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Keith, a Thomas friend, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter. Keith talked Roberts up to Thomas: first black woman to be president of the state bar, managing partner in a major law firm, someone of integrity. Thomas agreed to see her.
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Thomas said he would help. If Keith was vouching for her, that was good enough for him. "The Republicans should not be surprised that President Clinton would nominate a person to the bench who would oppose Bork," Thomas told Roberts. "If you can assure me that you can be fair, I'll make some phone calls."
Keith recalled Thomas phoning him and saying: "You can tell her she'll be confirmed. I've talked to Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott."
Former students and faculty of Yale Law School have always been well represented among America's legal elite -- as any visitor to the New Haven, Conn., institution can see. Proudly displayed on its walls are portraits of five past justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: William H. Taft, William O. Douglas, Byron R. White, Abe Fortas and Potter Stewart.Clarence Thomas: The Record of a Justice; Jurist Embraces Image as a Hard-Line Holdout
But one face is conspicuously absent: that of current Justice Clarence Thomas, Yale Law Class of 1974. According to people familiar with the situation, that was Thomas's choice. The vacant place of honor is the justice's silent protest against what he still considers Yale's failure to back him against Anita Hill, a Yale alumna, during his bitter 1991 confirmation hearings, these sources said.
Shortly after delivering a sober commencement address at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., Clarence Thomas chatted and posed for pictures with some of the 56 graduates. On an overcast day in May, they stood in front of a newly unveiled statue of Sir Thomas More, the Catholic martyr whom Thomas has called an inspiration.Justice Mum Come Oral Arguments
Before long, someone asked about Brown v. Board of Education, the monumental 1954 Supreme Court decision to end legal segregation that was being widely hailed throughout the nation on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Thomas, the only black justice on the Supreme Court, launched into an impromptu lecture. It was not about Brown, but about Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that produced the infamous separate-but-equal doctrine.
Thomas singled out the lonely dissent of John Marshall Harlan, the only justice to vote against the decision. "In the eye of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant ruling class of citizens," Harlan wrote. "There is no caste here. Our constitution is colorblind."
Thomas said of Harlan's opinion: "It was not reported. There were no contemporaneous articles. No law review articles. Just one guy." One guy, he added, whose view eventually was embraced by a nation.
Thomas's take on Plessy says much about how he sees his own role on the nation's highest court: a lonely holdout for principle.
Even former Thomas clerks and colleagues are perplexed by the justice's reticence at oral argument. Antonin Scalia, one of the court's most active questioners, believes Thomas is only hurting himself. Scalia once told Thomas that his silence made it "too easy" for his critics, according to a source with direct knowledge of what was said.Culling the Reputable, Reliable, Right-Leaning
Clarence Thomas was speaking to students at Ashland University, an hour south of Cleveland, when he was hit by a question that often follows him: How much of your own work do you do?Thomas v. Blackmun; Late Jurist's Papers Puncture Colleague's Portrait of a Genteel Court
The student questioner went on to observe that law clerks are said to have a lot of power. "I think the law clerks are in charge of everything," Thomas retorted. "In fact, I got an allowance from them before I came here."
He went on to offer a serious discussion about his relationship with his clerks.
"Mine are like family," he said, adding, "You rarely see other members of the court, but you see your law clerks every day."
Clarence Thomas is known for forging closer bonds with law clerks than most justices. Here, he talks with three of his clerks in his chambers in 2002. (David Hume Kennerly -- Getty Images)
[T]he late Justice Harry A. Blackmun's papers, released in March, puncture the image of the court as a bastion of genteel deliberation, where an unkind word is seldom spoken and lobbying to win the support of colleagues is frowned upon. Irreverence, pique and backstage political maneuvering, they are all in Blackmun's papers.
Much has been written about his papers, yet hardly anything about the portions dealing with Thomas.