If you’ve been watching the news lately in relation to the legal status of abortions, you’ve most likely heard one name among many others. Clarence Thomas. You may have heard of him as one of the Supreme Court Justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. Or as the Justice who said that decisions regarding the legality of contraception and same-sex marriage should be ‘revisited’. Or even as the Justice whose wife was present at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021, but failed to recuse himself from cases tied to that same rally. While all these actions may be reflections of the man, they don’t tell the whole story of who he is. So, who is Clarence Thomas?
On June 23, 1948, Clarence Thomas was born in a low-income, predominantly black Gullah community near Savannah, Georgia called Pin Point. His family was descended from slaves, with their earliest traceable ancestors being born in the late 18th century. Thomas’ father abandoned his mother when he was just 2 years old. He lived in poverty until he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. Here, he learned a lot from his grandfather, (his memoir is even called ‘My Grandfather’s Son’) including the importance of hard work and self-reliance in addition to the value of a good education. And so, he sought that good education. Being raised Catholic, he attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, graduating with honors and earning a degree in English Literature. While he was there, his political views began to form. He helped found the Black Student Union at his college and attended anti-war marches. He even saw the 1970 Harvard Square Riots. These caused him to become disillusioned with movements tied to the political left and sparked his turn towards conservatism. After graduating, he attended Yale University, where he received a degree as a Doctor of Law in 1974. Even though he attended one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, many of the law firms he applied to after graduating from Yale didn’t take him as a serious applicant, assuming instead he only got in because of affirmative action.
After passing the Missouri bar exam, Thomas took a job as an assistant attorney general, a job he considers the best he ever had. He later became an attorney with a chemical company and a legislative assistant for a Senate committee. In 1987, he married Virginia “Ginni” Lamp, an attorney and conservative activist. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served there for 2 years. Finally, in 1991, after Thurgood Marshall, (the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court) retired, Thomas was nominated to replace him. Thomas is the second African American to serve on the nation’s highest court. While at the time, Bush was reported as saying Thomas was the “best qualified at this time”, it’s important to note that not everyone at the time agreed.
U.S. Presidents have typically submitted their nominations for the Supreme Court to the American Bar Association for a confidential review of the nominee. The ABA delivers a rating of their “judicial temperament, competence, and integrity on a three-level scale of well qualified, qualified or unqualified”. Historically, candidates nominated by Democratic presidents have fared better in the group’s ratings than those nominated by Republicans. Anticipating Thomas to be rated lower than he “deserved”, both the White House (George H.W. Bush was President at the time) and Republican Senators pressured the ABA for at least the ‘qualified’ rating and simultaneously attempted to discredit the ABA as blatantly partisan (choosing to ignore the fact that correlation is not causation). In the end, the ABA did rate Thomas as qualified, although with one of the lowest levels of support for a Supreme Court nominee. Even at the time, civil rights and feminist organizations opposed the appointment based partially on Thomas’s criticism of affirmative action and suspicions that Thomas might not support Roe v. Wade, which has become abundantly clear since his appointment and especially in the past few months.
It would also be remiss to write this article and not mention the Anita Hill controversy. During Thomas’ confirmation hearings, Anita Hill, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, brought forth allegations that 10 years prior Thomas had sexually harassed her. In her words, he engaged in “behavior that is unbefitting an individual who will be a member of the Court.” Hill’s testimony became televised national news, and was essentially a predecessor, and drew a lot of parallels to the Brett Kavanaugh-Christine Blasey Ford controversy of 2018. In both cases, millions watched the confirmation hearings eagerly, wondering what would happen. Thomas, just like Kavanaugh, denied the allegations vehemently and claimed they were a “high-tech lynching” and a racist attack against him as an African American man. Hill was the only woman to testify against Thomas, although other women submitted statements detailing Thomas’ questionable behavior in other instances. Others, like Nancy Altman, defended Thomas. Hill, just like Blasey-Ford, was slammed, insulted, and even sent death threats. Her name was dragged through the mud, just for testifying. But her testimony did achieve something, it caused many, both in the Senate and across the country to start doubting Thomas. Regardless, after all the witnesses testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee (led by Joe Biden), Thomas was ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court in a 52-48 vote, with Democrats and Republicans voting on both sides. But as to whether Hill’s allegations against Thomas were true, according to Corey Robin in 2019, based on “evidence amassed by investigative journalists over… years”, including new corroborative testimony, “it’s since become clear that Thomas lied to the Judiciary Committee when he stated that he never sexually harassed Anita Hill”, but that Thomas’s description of the accusations as a “high-tech lynching” was an authentic reaction and reflected Thomas’s sincere belief about the racial aspect of his nomination.
Since his confirmation, Thomas has been a strong part of the Court’s conservative wing. A YouGov poll conducted in March 2021 found that Thomas was the most popular sitting Supreme Court Justice among Republicans, with a 59% approval rating in that category. As the Supreme Court became more and more conservative during Donald Trump’s presidency, Thomas and his views became more influential in the Court. His conservative views are most recently reflected in his choice to overturn Roe v. Wade, which actually goes against his own supposed personal doctrine of stare decisis, which is the principle that the Court is bound by its preceding decisions. He even said during his confirmation hearings, “stare decisis provides continuity to our system, it provides predictability, and in our process of case-by-case decision making, I think it is a very important and critical concept.” By that logic, Roe v. Wade ought to be left alone but evidently, his doctrine has changed. The concept of stare decisis also contradicts Thomas’ statements that decisions about contraception and same-sex intimacy/marriage ought to be reconsidered as Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges established the right for married couples to buy and use contraceptives, the right for consenting adults to engage in same-sex intimacy, and the right for same-sex couples to be married respectively. Thomas is fundamentally contradicting one of the ideas he claimed he stood by in his confirmation hearings, which doesn’t seem great for someone whose decisions affect millions across the country.
And all of this isn’t even properly going through the Ginni Thomas controversy. For those of you who may not know, Ginni Thomas has become embroiled in controversy surrounding the January 6 riot at the Capitol building and is even testifying at a hearing about it. While it’s inherently questionable that a Supreme Court Justice has a spouse who was part of efforts to overturn a legitimate election and an attack on the center of our democracy, the heart of the issue is that Thomas has to judge cases tied to the rally, and as of yet, has not recused himself from them. This is problematic as it’s obvious that he may have a bias, and that the only way for Supreme Court Justices to be recused from a case is by essentially their own judgment. Unless Thomas chooses to recuse himself, there’s nothing to stop him from being involved in cases where his bias may play a part. Even many legal experts say that he should recuse himself. Having a bias in a case is fundamentally detrimental to the duty of a judge. His failure to recuse himself is clearly a major issue for the Supreme Court. How is justice supposed to be impartial if there’s a clear bias?
All of these controversies have left somewhat of a bad taste on the public perception of Thomas. Most recently, a petition was started to impeach him, jumping 150,000 signatures in the days after Roe v. Wade was overturned, and as of now, that petition has garnered over 500,000 signatures. Additionally, according to a poll conducted jointly by Demand Justice and Heart Research Associates, 61% of Americans favored a congressional investigation into Thomas due to his refusal to recuse himself. 53% also believed that the justice should recuse himself from all future cases involving the 2020 election, due to his wife’s involvement.
So there you have it. A somewhat in-depth look at the life of Justice Clarence Thomas, from his childhood to contemporary controversies. What he does and continues to do remains to be seen, but as of now, his actions may be detrimental to our nation. As to what his legacy might be, that remains to be seen. But as of now, it seems that it may reflect a man whose actions sought to strip millions of their freedoms, even when it went against his own words.