Justice Thomas Speaks

Column: Clarence Thomas's 25 years on the Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas
Clarence Thomas / AP
October 28, 2016

Clarence Thomas needs to speak more. Not for his benefit. For America's.

This is the justice's twenty-fifth year on the Supreme Court. He is famously reticent. Not only on the bench, where in February he shocked the media by asking a question during oral argument for first time in a decade, but also in public life.

Other than his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather's Son, a 60 Minutes interview that accompanied its release, and a smattering of public appearances, including his eulogy for Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas is more likely to be seen at a RV camp or Nebraska football game than symposia, colloquia, book signings, and public lectures.

But this week is different. He appeared on Conversations With Bill Kristol and at the Heritage Foundation to mark his quarter century of service. The two interviews showcase the common sense, devotion, humility, and curiosity of a legal mind not given its due. I recommend these two essays from The Weekly Standard if you are interested in the field of law. For the rest of us, it is enough to hear from Justice Thomas himself.

He recently taught at the University of Georgia. The topic was legal precedent. "If you're a doctor and someone comes in with a complicated health problem," he tells Bill Kristol, "I think a doctor, they'd say, 'Get a second opinion, let's run a couple of tests to make sure. Let's do this, let's do that, I think this is the answer, but we should do some more tests to make sure.' Why don't we do that with the law? That's basically the approach that we take with originalism."

The law, he says, is like a train. The initial case is the engine. But each additional ruling adds another car to the rig. A judge should not concern himself only with the most recent addition.

"You have an obligation to take your time, walk through all the cars, see what's up in the engine of the train, see who's driving. It may be an orangutan, for all we know; it may be going over a cliff, for all we know; it may be running headlong into a station, for all we know. Then why are we adding another car?"

The word obligation is prominent in his speech. He is a driven man whose origins, religion, principles commit him to say what he believes is right. "I think we are required to swim upstream no matter what," he tells Kristol. "My grandfather was that sort of person, that no matter what others were doing or how bad it looked, we had things we were supposed to do."

Justice Thomas grew up in segregated Georgia, more or less raised by his grandfather, who had no formal schooling. At home the family spoke Gullah. He went to a segregated Catholic school, then an all-white school, then seminary, then Holy Cross, then Yale Law School. He got a job in St. Louis, later following Missouri's attorney general, John Danforth, to the U.S. Senate.

When I came here in 1979, the prime interest rate in the country was around 20 percent. We were immersed in the Iranian hostage situation. You had inflation that was double digit. It was the era of malaise—I always say, 'mayonnaise.' I was riding a bus down Pennsylvania Avenue, commuting to Capitol Hill where I worked. Those days Pennsylvania Avenue was open all the way through, and I couldn't afford to drive a car or anything in.

And the world changes; things change in your life. Was I in a position to despair then? Absolutely. Things weren't really looking good. But you are obligated not to despair.

President Reagan appointed him to the Department of Education and to the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission. The first president Bush appointed him to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, then to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court in 1991. He was confirmed by a vote of 52-48 after accusations of harassment threatened to scuttle the nomination.

And here we are in 2016. The key thinkers of the postwar conservative intellectual movement—figures such as William F. Buckley Jr., Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Bork, James Q. Wilson, and Scalia—are gone. You can count the number of remaining conservative intellectuals on two hands. That's if you feel generous.

This is why Thomas matters. His dissents are lucid, well reasoned, pungently argued. His life testifies to the significance of family, literacy, religiosity, diligence, intelligence, and magnanimity. He has recommendations to offer: The U.S. Constitution: A Reader, Invisible Man, Native Son, "Victorian Virtues / Jewish Values" by Gertrude Himmelfarb, the works of Thomas Sowell, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a visit to Gettysburg, a screening of John Adams (2008). He is brilliant, devout, patriotic, humble, large-hearted.

We can learn from him. "Now, about our country," he tells Kristol. "Things may not look good. But we are obligated not to despair. Do I know what the outcome is going to be? No. Do I know that we are going to be vindicated? No. But that's not why you do it. You don't do it necessarily to persuade, to feel that you are going to persuade other people.

"You do it because it's right."