Dinner with Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas Grandfather’s SonThe Heritage Foundation held a dinner last night honoring Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas on the publication of his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. The small gathering included Virginia Lamp Thomas, the Justice’s wife, and a group of bloggers and other opinion journalists.

I was honored to be in attendance along with bloggers Ed Morrissey, Paul Mirengoff, LaShawn Barber, Mary Katharine Ham, Erick Erickson, Jack and Charmaine Yoest, Sasha Volokh, Tim Graham, and Richard Miniter and print journalists Bill Kristol, Kate O’Beirne, and James Taranto. Rebecca Hagelin and Robert Bluey were our hosts. (The hyperlinks, which I’ll update as time permits, go to reflections on the evening or the book.)

The event was on the record but, in keeping with the tradition of the bench, Thomas scrupulously avoided answering any questions about cases that might come before the Court. Mostly, the conversation was on the human side of the equation: Reflections on the confirmation process, both in general and his particular case; his surprisingly warm treatment in the black community and how that contrasts with the media portrayal; the collegiality on the Court; what it was like to wrench up painful memories in writing the book, and so forth.

Thomas has a hearty laugh and seems to be genuinely enjoying his life. He’s still understandably bitter about the ordeal of his confirmation hearings and has little use for the press corps. Indeed, he turned down an interview request with the Supreme Court correspondents about the book and considers many of them to be “clowns.” He wishes that the blogosphere had been around sixteen years ago to counter the monopoly on information and commentary enjoyed by an elite few in those days.

The Justice shared several anecdotes, some of which are doubtless in the book and others of which I’m sure my dinner companions will share in their posts. What most amused me, simply because of the incongruity, was the fact that Thomas owns a bus, behind which he pulls a car. He apparently harbored notions of being a professional truck driver once upon a time and enjoys the rituals of the truck stop and the interactions with the other drivers. Perhaps because no one expects to see a Supreme Court Justice pull up next to them in the big rig parking lot, he’s seldom recognized and is able to enjoy the camaraderie.

The other thing that stuck with me was a conversation with Bush 41 counsel C. Boyden Gray that took place several years after Thomas was on the bench. Contrary to what most — including Thomas and myself — thought at the time, his selection to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Court’s “black seat” was not tokenism. Indeed, the fact that Thomas was black actually hurt him because Bush didn’t want it to look like he was simply looking for a black man to keep the Court’s quota of one filled. In fact, the administration had hoped to appoint Thomas to replace William Brennan on the Court and was grooming him for that by appointing him to the Court of Appeals.

Unfortunately, Brennan retired sooner than expected and Thomas was deemed to be insufficiently seasoned to make it through confirmation. That the next vacancy was Marshall’s seat proved awkward but they didn’t want to take the chance of not getting another shot (and they wouldn’t). Ultimately, their confidence in Thomas’ grace under pressure and that he would therefore not become “another Souter” prevailed.

The book, which I’ve just started reading, is similarly personal. As the title suggests, it’s ultimately about being raised by his grandparents and what a poor and semi-literate man who lived most of his life in the Jim Crow era taught him about personal responsibility, integrity, and hard work. That upbringing made him the man he is and therefore the judge that he is.

While I strongly disagree with him on some important cases, notably those involving detention of declared terrorist suspects, meeting him added to my respect for him as a man who’s simply trying to do an important job with honor. (Indeed, with rare exceptions, meeting with people with whom I disagree reminds me that they’re decent human beings who merely have different experiences and perspectives.) He tries to stay as close to the text of the Constitution as possible but professes to have no “judicial philosophy.” Having served many years in the executive branch, though, he tends to concern himself with practical matters and be less influenced by grand theory than those who come from the professoriate.

He’s right, I think, that the selection process places too much importance on academic pedigree and too little on personal character. He thinks this is why judges tend to “evolve” once on the bench. Those who have never been “under fire” often wither under the steady barrage of criticism and are seduced by awards from law schools and praise from the likes of Linda Greenhouse. It takes a strong man, indeed, to remain true to one’s own beliefs in that environment, concerned only about the man in the mirror.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. carpeicthus says:

    Or just maybe Souter has a flexible mind that deals with the facts of the case, because he tends not to sleep through oral arguments, like the guy you’re lionizing.

  2. Andy says:

    Thomas’ obsessive hatred of those who opposed him during his nomination process is a bit creepy.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Souter’s “flexible mind” is the problem. The law should not be subject to the whims of such a flexible mind. The law is based upon years of experience and the work of a democratically elected legislature.

    If we had wanted nine regal princes to rule our country we would have a very different constitution. Justice Thomas seems to respect the constitution that we do have.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Or just maybe Souter has a flexible mind that deals with the facts of the case, because he tends not to sleep through oral arguments, like the guy you’re lionizing.

    Certainly, Thomas deals with the facts of the case. And, so far as I’m aware, he’s attentive during oral arguments, albeit not particularly interested in jocular byplay with the attorneys.

    Thomas’ obsessive hatred of those who opposed him during his nomination process is a bit creepy.

    The process was incredibly insulting and demeaning; it’s rather hard to blame him for bearing grudges.

  5. Andy says:

    The process was incredibly insulting and demeaning; it’s rather hard to blame him for bearing grudges.

    Hey, guess what? That’s what happens when you sexually harass a woman.

  6. James Joyner says:

    That’s what happens when you sexually harass a woman.

    Except that there’s zero evidence it happened. That the Senate shined a spotlight on the smear and subjected him to ridicule over it is why he’s angry.

    From Wikipedia:

    Despite charges of outrageous behavior in the office, Hill could not produce a credible eyewitness to testify on her behalf, whereas Thomas brought in many former employees who had worked alongside both Thomas and Hill, and believed Thomas to be the more credible of the two. Thomas made a blanket denial of the accusations, claiming this was a “high-tech lynching”, and, after extensive debate, the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52-48. [1]

    In 1991, public opinion polls showed that 47% of those polled believed Thomas, while only 24% believed Hill. Doubts about her testimony were furthered by the widely publicized and later recanted claims of David Brock, who coined the phrase “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” to describe Professor Hill.

  7. Andy says:

    Fantastic. I’m glad we’re deciding the facts based on public opinion polls, especially after the right wing smear campaign against Hill. That was one of the more disgusting efforts of the right in recent memory. If the case were so suspect and without merit, why the misogynistic and racist smears?

    Like many (most?) harassment cases, the only witness are the harasser and the harassed.

    On the off chance (gee, say 24%) that Thomas was a crude sexist bully, to say nothing of his relatively weak legal credentials, don’t you think the country could have done a lot better?

  8. James Joyner says:

    Like many (most?) harassment cases, the only witness are the harasser and the harassed.

    On the off chance (gee, say 24%) that Thomas was a crude sexist bully, to say nothing of his relatively weak legal credentials, don’t you think the country could have done a lot better?

    Surely, the burden of proof is on the accuser? Thomas produced numerous witnesses to testify that the alleged behaviors were completely incongruous with his character; surely, that amounts to something?

    The opinion polls merely show that, despite the current conception after years of repeating the smear, that the contemporaneous public, having heard from both Hill and Thomas directly, believed Thomas. That, incidentally, is how we generally decide these type of cases.

  9. Triumph says:

    The event was on the record but, in keeping with the tradition of the bench, Thomas scrupulously avoided answering any questions about cases that might come before the Court.

    Also in keeping with the tradition of Thomas never saying anything while hearing oral arguments before the court. On issues involving his duties he has to check with Scalia before he comes to an opinion. Since Scalia wasn’t at the party, it is not surprising he didn’t speak about anything that matters.

  10. Martin says:

    I am a female and have encountered black men of his generation and position to carry on such sexual conversations as described by Ms. Anita Hill. I believe Justice Thomas did make such comments and perform such acts.

    I am applauded that Thomas believes that he did not benefit from the Civil Right Laws and that it did not play a role in him getting into Yale.

  11. James Joyner says:

    On issues involving his duties he has to check with Scalia before he comes to an opinion.

    Not so much. From a 2004 TNR piece quoted at OTB:

    Given the widely held perception of Thomas as an unserious justice who leans on Scalia for intellectual guidance, it probably surprised many Court watchers to see the justices parting ways on two key decisions during the last week—yesterday’s decision striking down the Child Online Protection Act and Monday’s decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all. That’s because the widely held myths about Thomas are largely false: He is neither a knee-jerk conservative nor Scalia’s yes-man. Rather, he has carved out a distinct jurisprudence as an advocate of textualism, a style of reading laws and constitutions in which words are taken at face value rather than interpreted in historical context or mitigated by practical considerations. There are notable ideological differences between Scalia and Thomas. Scalia, for instance, takes a narrower view of free speech and is less willing to reverse previous Court decisions, even when it is clear that they departed from the original intentions of the Constitution’s framers. Thomas, by contrast, sees himself as a staunch defender of the classically liberal vision of the country’s founders.

    ***

    To be sure, Thomas and Scalia—the Court’s two committed originalists—frequently agree. But this term six other pairs of justices agreed more frequently than they did. Justices Souter and Ginsburg were in complete agreement in 85 percent of the Court’s decisions. Chief Justice Rehnquist agreed with Justice O’Connor in 79 percent and Justice Kennedy in 77 percent. Justices Stevens and Souter agreed 77 percent of the time; so did Justices Ginsburg and Breyer. Thomas and Scalia agreed in only 73 percent of the cases. Thomas regularly breaks with Scalia, disagreeing on points of doctrine, finding a more measured and judicial tone, and calling for the elimination of bad law. Unless he is simply a very bad yes-man, Clarence Thomas is a more independent voice than most people give him credit for.

  12. Independent says:

    I am a female and have encountered black men of his generation and position to carry on such sexual conversations as described by Ms. Anita Hill. I believe Justice Thomas did make such comments and perform such acts.

    That’s funny, because this is exactly what Thomas was speaking about in a recent interview. He said everything was framed in stereotypes and the essential goal of the opposition was to play on the fact that black men are seen as sexually aggressive. He claimed that regardless of the facts of the case, people would be convinced of his guilt because he was black and successful.

    I wasn’t sure if his claims had any weight, but it seems like he was right.

  13. Thomas says:

    James,
    The book Strange Justice brought forth women who recounted experiences with Thomas similar to those of Anita Hill

  14. whippoorwill says:

    He’s right, I think, that the selection process places too much importance on academic pedigree and too little on personal character. He thinks this is why judges tend to “evolve” once on the bench.

    Or maybe they “evolve” because they come to realize the founders gave us a Liberal Constitutional Democracy, not a conservative one. And if it had been the latter we would have a text with numerous volumes describing the do’s and don’ts of conservative ideology.

    And any man or woman who goes through life suppressing personal change does not belong on the Supreme Court or any other.

  15. Tlaloc says:

    Surely, the burden of proof is on the accuser?

    For a criminal proceeding, absolutely. For measuring Thomas’ character? Not so much.

    Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about OJ…

  16. James Joyner says:

    For a criminal proceeding, absolutely. For measuring Thomas’ character? Not so much.

    Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about OJ…

    But the burden of proof was on the accuser in the O.J. case. Given the jury pool and an incompetent prosecution, they couldn’t manage reasonable doubt on the criminal side. The Goldmans managed preponderance on the civil side. Either way, it wasn’t up to O.J. to prove his innocence.

  17. Tlaloc says:

    But the burden of proof was on the accuser in the O.J. case. Given the jury pool and an incompetent prosecution, they couldn’t manage reasonable doubt on the criminal side. The Goldmans managed preponderance on the civil side. Either way, it wasn’t up to O.J. to prove his innocence.

    My point is this:
    yes in a criminal proceeding the burden of proof was on the accuser (as it should be) and the state failed to meet it. So OJ went free.

    But…

    When it comes to evaluations of character we don’t have such a standard which is why you and I both know OJ is toejam. We don’t have to prove the assertion. There is no onus on the “prosecution” when in the court of public opinion.

  18. James Joyner says:

    When it comes to evaluations of character we don’t have such a standard which is why you and I both know OJ is toejam. We don’t have to prove the assertion. There is no onus on the “prosecution” when in the court of public opinion.

    Even there, though, there’s an accuser and an accused. We make judgments about their relative credibility and the facts presented. If someone’s character was presumed good to begin with, then, the burden is on the accuser by virtue of simple inertia.

  19. badger says:

    James,

    Justice Thomas gets our tax money and is expected to do two things: Maintain a superior level of expertise of American law and jurisprudence and to treat all cases that come before him impartially, without regard to who brings them and with an open mind to both sides of the case. Now, I am not in a position to evaluate his expertise and we are all entitle to and perhaps burdened with opinions that we cannot simply erase from our minds. But what does his continued anger and sense of persecution that fifteen years into his lifetime appointment speak towards his ability to be impartial and fair? How about his tendency to attribute all the perceived slights and wrongs against him to an entire ideological group (liberals), than individuals and his subsequent comparison of that group (encompassing nearly a quarter of all Americans) to domestic terrorist organizations like the KKK? What dignity does he bring to his appointment to have honorary dinners at ideologically-sympathetic think tanks, to which he only invites the loyal and personally sympathetic? How could any liberal expect to receive a fair hearing from such a man?

  20. James Joyner says:

    How could any liberal expect to receive a fair hearing from such a man?

    He doesn’t try individual cases; he weighs in on important matters of law as one vote among nine.

    One might as well ask how men could get a fair hearing in front of Justice Ginsburg, who spent most of her adult life as a feminist activist. One presumes, however, that she’s a person of character and does her best to be fair. She’s a biased human being, though, as are we all.

  21. Triumph says:

    The Justice shared several anecdotes, some of which are doubtless in the book and others of which I’m sure my dinner companions will share in their posts.

    By the way, what did they serve for dinner? I would think AEI would have some pretty swell chow and booze.

  22. James Joyner says:

    By the way, what did they serve for dinner? I would think AEI would have some pretty swell chow and booze.

    Heh. Well, it was Heritage which is likely less booze friendly than AEI (or even my own, much less financially endowed Atlantic Council). We had iced tea and water.

    A nice salad which I didn’t eat because I don’t like salads, followed by a surf and turf (filet and some sort of white fish) with asparagus, and a really good chocolate cake with raspberries with coffee.

  23. Steve Plunk says:

    In all the comments bashing Thomas here I don’t see any with a sound argument against his judicial ability. Nothing pointing out glaring errors in legal thinking or cognitive abilities.

    I do see people judging a man based upon unproven accusations. A former president was given a pass on boorish (or worse) behavior on more substantial evidence by many of these same folks.

    I hardly see one chapter of his book as anything more than a full explanation of the events of those days from his perspective. They deserve to be in the book along with the other important events of his life.

  24. Pug says:

    A former president was given a pass on boorish (or worse) behavior on more substantial evidence by many of these same folks.

    I love the Bill Clinton got a pass argument. If I remember correctly there was an independent counsel investigation followed by impeachment proceedings. The entire thing lasted over two years.

    Thomas is the one who got the pass from the same people who hounded Clinton for years at great expense. Thomas’ confirmation hearings lasted about a week and he was confirmed.

    Unless I don’t remember correctly, Clinton hardly got a pass.

  25. Tlaloc says:

    Even there, though, there’s an accuser and an accused. We make judgments about their relative credibility and the facts presented. If someone’s character was presumed good to begin with, then, the burden is on the accuser by virtue of simple inertia.

    Oh, I don’t know, I rather liked OJ before he, you know, murdered two people.

    Plunk:

    In all the comments bashing Thomas here I don’t see any with a sound argument against his judicial ability. Nothing pointing out glaring errors in legal thinking or cognitive abilities.

    What part of “evaluation of the man’s character” is hard to parse?

  26. Tano says:

    “…the selection process places too much importance on academic pedigree and too little on personal character…”

    Thats odd. I though Thomas’s hearing focused quite a bit on his character, or lack thereof….

    And James, you really should read “Strange Justice”, by a WSJ reporter and a New Yorker reporter. You do seem to be under some illusions about the whole conformation fight….

  27. Savonarola says:

    I second the motion re: “Strange Justice.”

    What really gets me about the Thomas nomination is how dismayed and appalled Thurgood Marshall was when he learned that Bush had nominated Thomas. Clarence Thomas is not 1/1000th the man that Thurgood Marshall was, and if you don’t understand what I’m saying, compare their biographies. Thurgood Marshall travelled in the 1940s and 50s through the Jim Crow south defending black cases, which must have required unbelievable guts and courage. Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, got where he was by sucking up to conservatives. I’m a white person, and I have NO respect for Clarence Thomas; if I were black, he’d probably make me crazy.

  28. JadeGold says:

    And, so far as I’m aware, he’s attentive during oral arguments, albeit not particularly interested in jocular byplay with the attorneys.

    Nobody’s talking about jocular byplay; remember, cases that come before the SC are generally complex–ones that have produced a good deal of disagreement at lower levels of the judiciary. As such, one would expect an engaged Justice to have questions for the attorneys or to seek clarification on some of the finer points of the arguments presented.

    Except that there’s zero evidence it happened

    .

    Not true. Angela Wright, Sukari Hardnett and others recounted Thomas’ bad behavior.