Sotomayor Defends Thomas

The longest-serving Supreme Court Justice is a nice guy.

The Hill (“Sotomayor praises Clarence Thomas: ‘He is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution’“):

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke highly of colleague Justice Clarence Thomas during an event on Thursday, saying, “He is a man who cares deeply about the court as an institution.”

Sotomayor, who is liberal, acknowledged during remarks at the American Constitution Society that while she often disagrees with the conservative justice, she believes that “we share a common understanding about people and kindness towards them”

“Justice Thomas is the one justice in the building that literally knows every employee’s name, every one of them. And not only does he know their names, he remembers their families’ names and histories,” she said.

“He’s the first one who will go up to someone when you’re walking with him and say, ‘Is your son okay? How’s your daughter doing in college?’ He’s the first one that, when my stepfather died, sent me flowers in Florida,” she added.

Adam Liptak’s report for the NYT (“Sotomayor Says Supreme Court Can ‘Regain the Public’s Confidence’“) adds:

Justice Sotomayor said her interactions with Justice Thomas have been instructive. “I suspect I have probably disagreed with him more than with any other justice,” she said.

“He has a different vision than I do about how to help people and about their responsibilities to help themselves,” she said. “Justice Thomas believes that every person can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I believe that some people can’t get to their bootstraps without help.

“That’s a very different philosophy of life, but I think we share a common understanding about people and kindness towards them,” she said. “That’s why I can be friends with him and still continue our daily battle over our difference of opinions in cases.”

More generally, she said, she and her colleagues had mastered the art “of disagreeing agreeably.” She attributed such civility to the legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who organized frequent group lunches and movie nights before her retirement in 2006.

“There is a sense of collegiality, a sense of cooperativeness, that women tend to insist upon,” Justice Sotomayor said.

That Thomas takes an interest in the personal lives of low-level staffers and sends flowers to colleagues on the other side of the aisle when they’re grieving is all to the good. Aside from a chip on his shoulder over the notion that he got to where he is only because of the color of his skin, I’ve always found him rather likable.

Further, unlike the vast majority of commenters here, I agree with Sotomayor that Thomas simply has a different philosophy of what the Court’s role is than do most liberals. By all accounts, though, he’s collegial and cares about the perception of the institution.

None of that, of course, changes the fact that Thomas is incredibly controversial. As we’ve noted many times here over the years, Thomas has a massive conflict of interest in the form of his wife, Ginni, who is deeply involved in right-wing advocacy, including having been a cheerleader for the insurrection on January 6. This has led to calls for him to recuse himself in a wide array of cases. While I tend to reject that—Justices come to the bench with all sorts of known ideological baggage and we don’t expect them to recuse in their interest areas—it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize his participation in votes on matters related to the Capitol Riot that directly implicate his wife.

It’s simultaneously possible for Thomas to be a figure of controversy and not be a monster. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Supreme Court, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    That Thomas takes an interest in the personal lives of low-level staffers

    Excessive interest in the personal lives of your subordinates is often control masquerading as kindness.

  2. CSK says:

    This reminds me of the deep friendship between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia.

  3. Jon says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Kinda like he had an excessive interest in the personal life of Anita Hill. What could possibly go wrong?

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hitler loved dogs.

  5. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Or it’s possible he’s a monster putting on a good personal show to distract from his and his wife’s monsterousness.

  6. drj says:

    The longest-serving Supreme Court Justice is a nice guy.

    The guy (and his wife) are threats to democracy.

    What is the point in humanizing him?

    Should we be in any way less concerned because our new unelected masters are nice people (apart, perhaps, from the occasional sexual assault)?

    Is it suddenly OK if someone takes away your political rights with a smile instead of a snarl?

    What kind of inane argument is this?

  7. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I fundamentally object to attempts to find the good in everyone when they’ve displayed a stripe of monstrousness. Clarence Thomas wants to destroy much of what is good in America as part of his Supreme Court role. He very likely has aided and abetted his wife in her direct attempt to destroy American democracy. That’s enough to say about him.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    I suspect what this really shows is that Sotomayor is working really hard at her job, trying to maintain a personal relationship with some of the enemy, hoping to mitigate the damage, as RBG did. I see Reynolds beat me to the inevitable comment about Hitler loved his dog. Well, right up til that time he successfully tested the cyanide capsule on it.

  9. drj says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    I fundamentally object to attempts to find the good in everyone

    This isn’t about finding the good in Thomas, this is about finding some silly reason to not be alarmed by the current state of American democracy.

    “Daddy would never hurt us. He is a nice person at heart.”

  10. Jen says:

    This makes Sotomayor look good, she’s clearly trying to repair at least some of the damage done to the court.

    Ginni Thomas is a problem. A big one. This needs to be addressed out in the open, with transparency. She and Justice Thomas have been skating very close to the edge of appropriateness for decades and this mess with Jan. 6 is when she exceeded the boundaries of what is acceptable.

    Complimenting a colleague in public is nice, I guess, but until this fiasco with Justice Thomas’s wife is addressed, it has the effect of installing wallpaper on a moldy wall–the rot will continue, it’ll be hidden for a while but will be an expensive mess to clean up later.

  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    It’s simultaneously possible for Thomas to be a figure of controversy and not be a monster. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case.

    Most people are like this. This is the mode I prefer. It can be very, very difficult when the opposition insists on describing you as pedophiles, baby killers and child abusers. Maybe Justice Thomas doesn’t do that. What about Ginni Thomas?

    I am a bit dismayed by all the theories above about how Thomas’ interest in the employees of the Court is some sort of dark character flaw. I do that sort of thing. I come from working people. I am not one now, but I relate to them. I enjoy talking to them.

  12. Sleeping Dog says:

    The SC is a very small workplace where the employees, the justices, will likely be together for the rest of their lives. Those are circumstances where collegiality is forced upon the members and Sotomayor acknowledged it. Thomas for his part likely leaves his acerbic tongue at home, saving it for his opinions and attacks on his critics.

    That doesn’t make him a good person, just a co-worker that you get along with.

  13. Fortunato says:

    Waterloo, Iowa native John Wayne Gacy, aka ‘The Killer Clown’, raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 young men and boys, burying their bodies under his home in Chicago.
    Gacy is reported to have had two dogs that he loved and doted on.
    Gacy’s charitable efforts also once earned him a personal meeting with First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

    During the official announcement of her presidential run, Crazy Eyes Michelle Bachmann brought The Killer Clown a brief moment of renewed fame.
    June 27, 2011, MinnPost –
    Bachmann apparently confuses actor John Wayne with serial killer John Wayne Gacy

    In an interview this morning (in Waterloo) after making her official presidential announcement, told Fox News:
    “Well what I want them to know is just like, John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.”


    John Wayne the actor was born in Winterset, Iowa, about 100 miles away, as the crow flies. His family moved to California when he was a little boy.

    The Waterloo John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer who committed some of his early sexual crimes in Waterloo…

  14. wr says:

    That’s really sweet. When a clerk or janitor at the Court dies from complications of an ectopic pregnancy because he voted to overrule Roe, do you think he’ll send flowers, or is a really heartfelt card enough?

  15. Beth says:

    Saddam Hussain cried as he had Iraqi legislators dragged off to be murdered. Thomas cheers as he condemns innocent people to death. He is an abhorrent human being.

  16. Jc says:

    He could just have a good secretary that keeps him informed of the goings on around the office. Sometimes great subordinates make an average guy appear to be well put together.

  17. Scott F. says:

    On the one hand, wistful dreams of collegiality and paeans to our institutions in the interest of helping people. On the other hand, calling out VPs who won’t break the law as traitorous wimps and a willingness to burn it all down in order to hold power in the interest of controlling people.

    This asymmetric warfare does not bode well.

  18. KM says:

    It’s simultaneously possible for Thomas to be a figure of controversy and not be a monster. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case.

    Being a decent person is not the same as not being a monster. Not being a monster is the bare minimum we expect out of human beings, not something you deserve a cookie for. Countless examples in history will have someone being genuinely loving and kind towards certain people, then turn about and perpetrate atrocities on others. How many men kissed their wives and children goodbye before going off to slaughter a village? How many master were kind to certain slaves while beating others? How many people joked with their neighbors before gathering for a lynching? More to the point, how many people used to be decent folks before QAnon and MAGA got to them and they invaded the damn Capitol?

    So what if he’s nice to the clerks. The Boss knows you and your kids name – whoopdie-doo. He’s a menace to liberty and democracy. He cares about the institution for what it can do for him and his cause, nothing more. If SCOTUS were disbanded tomorrow in a Gilead-style coup, you think he’d go out of his way to protect those clerks? Would he bargain for their lives or care if they were put up against the wall or made into Handmaidens? Hell, why isn’t he demanding his clerks get protection under the new bill McConnell wants if he’s such a nice guy and cares so much? Maybe we should stop conflating “bothers to remember basic details about other humans for more than 5 minute” with real decency.

  19. Jen says:

    and cares about the perception of the institution.

    I think that anyone who truly cares about the perception of the institution would have a more finely tuned meter when it comes to recusing himself when there’s a whiff of a conflict of interest. He’s steadfastly refused over the years to recuse himself on a number of cases that he probably should have…IF he genuinely “cared about the perception of the institution.”

    Not to mention perhaps encouraging his spouse to find work that wasn’t so directly in the path of potential conflicts of interest. There are many, many jobs in DC where she could have applied her experience that wouldn’t have raised so many eyebrows.

    Bottom line, if he REALLY cared as much as Sotomayor is suggesting, he would have made dramatically different choices over the years.

  20. Modulo Myself says:

    Not surprised. Thomas grew up so damn poor, and he’s not the country club type. I suspect he’s probably good at being sincere and caring without sounding like he’s being charitable. So it’s not that he’s a nice guy. It’s that he knows how to be kind, whereas guys like Kavanaugh and Alito and Gorsuch strike me as unaware of the distinction.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    Alito, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett (at least) all lied their way into their current jobs. As soon as they were named they scuttled off to the White House to be schooled on just how to go about lying to the Senate and the American people. The futures of women and Blacks and gays and everyone else are in the hands of ideologues willing to lie to gain power.

    Respect is not conveyed with the title or position, respect is earned. This court has done nothing to earn respect, it may be the worst court since the Taney court – a pack of mediocrities and ideologues who hold power by virtue of their own dishonesty, Mitch McConnell’s manipulation and Republican contempt for custom, law and decency.

  22. gVOR08 says:


    do you think he’ll send flowers, or is a really heartfelt card enough?

    Thoughts and prayers. Appropriate, and sufficient, for all occasions.

  23. Michael Cain says:

    Honesty requires me to admit that there is at least one thing on which Justice Thomas and I agree: a Supreme Court where almost all of the justices attended Harvard or Yale law schools, and spent the majority of their adult life and career in the northeast urban corridor, is a bad idea.

  24. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I am a bit dismayed by all the theories above about how Thomas’ interest in the employees of the Court is some sort of dark character flaw.

    You’ve obviously never had to deal with being an LGBT person with an openly homophobic boss suddenly interested in the details of your private life.

  25. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    … a pack of mediocrities and ideologues who hold power by virtue of their own dishonesty, Mitch McConnell’s manipulation and Republican contempt for custom, law and decency.

    And by virtue of an electoral system skewed in favor of minority rule. Don’t ever forget how many of these mediocrities were named to the Court by a president who didn’t win the popular vote.

  26. KM says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Or a woman having to deal with a “nice guy” who insists on walking you to your car and wants to know all the details about you. Or a minority that has a really nice boss that keeps insisting they’re one of the good ones when they’re having a beer and mutters about “those people” and FOX’s latest talking point. It’s really interesting who tends to pick up on dichotomy of actions vs behavior – surface level social niceties vs the things that tend to be red flags. Later, when everyone is doing the “why didn’t we see it??” spiel, there’s always someone who did and was ignored, usually someone underprivileged who knew what to look for.

    Again, you can be perfectly nice and sincere in 90% of your life and still be a total #^#&$& monster when it counts. They are *not* antipodes no matter what you might believe. Thomas might truly care for his clerks on a personal level….. to a certain extent. Not enough to make sure their right aren’t being violated, the nation they live in not lose its democracy or even that they are safe like he is. Being nice to the waiter doesn’t mean you don’t participate in insurrections.

  27. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Stormy Dragon: No, I haven’t had to deal with such issues. The question, in my mind, is not whether you trust Thomas, but whether you trust Sotomayor’s reporting of him. Do you think she might have noticed the difference, if it was a scenario like you mention? The details don’t quite match, it seems to me. But I’m not in your shoes.

    I mean, yeah, I get the hostility toward Thomas and his jurisprudence. I can’t think of a single opinion he’s written that made me think “that’s a good point” and Scalia had several, even though I really didn’t like him. What I know of conservative black men is that they see pretty much the same things I see, they just don’t think there’s any way to fix it, so best let it alone.

    And I get that someone more directly threatened by the decision of Justice Thomas might have a harder time with this. I’m not mandating anything, just telling y’all that I like a world where people who sit in the high seats still take an interest in working people. I think that’s a better world.

    And by the way, this doesn’t mean he won’t make decisions in his job that harm lots of people. He probably will. I just kind of think people aren’t very binary.

  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    but whether you trust Sotomayor’s reporting of him

    Thomas has no power over either her or her future career, so it’s much easier to be charitable in her interpretations of his behavior. There’s no risk to her if she’s wrong.

    I’m not even saying Thomas is going around with some deliberate intent of getting dirt on low level clerks and admin employees. I just recognize that he is who he is and that there’s lots of people who have perfectly valid reasons to be uncomfortable with him getting overly familiar and past history has shown he doesn’t take being rebuffed for getting overly familiar well at all.

  29. MarkedMan says:

    This is a case where I think I am seeing things in a completely different way than everyone else . The headline on the post says Sotomayor “Defends” Thomas, but then I read it and thought it was very much the “Defense” equivalent of the “Non-Apology Apology” or the “Non-Denial Denial”. Clarence Thomas is accused of, at minimum, corruptly staying on at least one case when he should have recused himself. It also seems likely that he is sharing court secrets with his wife, or his clerks are, and she is taking them to fellow traitors, insurrectionists and loons. I could go on, but you get my point. He is being accused of all kinds of really bad things, not a one of which involves how he speaks to the help, and Sotomayor comes out vigorously… in defense of him remembering peoples birthdays.

  30. John430 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Hitler loved dogs.

    Ergo- he loved you.

  31. CSK says:

    Uh, Michael is…Jewish.

  32. Raoul says:

    Thomas did have an interesting perspective at one time but something happened the last ten years where his jurisprudence has evolved from originalist to partisan. I will say Gorsuch is now the true originalist whereas Thomas and Alito look at the end results before judging.

  33. wr says:

    @CSK: “Uh, Michael is…Jewish.”

    No, no, no. Clearly you failed to understand Mr. 430’s brilliant witticism. You see if Hitler loved dogs and Hitler would have loved MR, that’s because MR is actually a dog! Can you not taste the Wilde-level genius of that quip? The sheer Shavian exuberance?

    Where, sir, have you lost your sense of humor?

  34. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @wr: No, no… 430s real objective was to stimulate us to
    contemplate whether Hitler could have loved Jewish dogs named Michael.

    His strategery is stupefyingly stupendous….

  35. Mister Bluster says:

    Just read a review of They Saved Hitler’s Brain at the IMDb website.
    The reviewer finishes with

    You know what, that after all these years since the release of “They Saved Hitler’s Brain’ I can’t for the life of me see why Hollywood hasn’t made a sequel.

    I can only guess that Hollywood is waiting for Trump to expire.

  36. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: I had no idea dogs could be Jewish. (sorry, could not escape the image of a dog arguing with Tevye about who said what in the Bible).

  37. CSK says:

    @wr: @Jim Brown 32: @OzarkHillbilly:
    Well, actually, there are Jewish dogs. To wit: The Canaan Dog.


  38. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: How well do they know the Talmud?

  39. Gavin says:

    and cares about the perception of the institution

    I’m sure Thomas does indeed care about the perception of USSC! Not enough to, you know, ever cast a vote in favor of people and against corporations in any way. But we can be assured that Tin Man has a heart.

    Ever wonder why nonsense like this only comes out when the conniving sociopath’s true nature is exposed to the light of day?

    Frankly, Thomas’ knowledge of everyone at USSC is more about his desire to control and manipulate them via that personal info — in exactly this way. He knows many people think “He couldn’t be uncaring, he remembers names and dates.” Or.. the reality of his choosing to remember names and dates [because he has the ability to remember, not because he gives 2 dimes about them] is his selected methodology of covering for his actual lack of concern.

    Actions, not false panacea, are the measure of every human.

    Thomas’ votes over all the years show his personal lack of empathy and concern for other human beings, and in whatever small way I am able, I will never let anyone walk out of a conversation thinking otherwise.

  40. Michael Reynolds says:

    Great. I promise to stop beating up on trolls and @CSK: @Jim Brown 32: @wr: get to have all the fun.

  41. Barry says:

    This article is the usual bootlicking of the elites. Thomas has made his views well known when it comes to power.

    As for caring about the reputation of SCOTUS, they do, but only in the sense of wanting to be praised while being evil.

    James, the violations of ethics which Thomas committed in his wife’s case is not partisan bias. It’s sitting on a case in which he has strong personal connections, as well as aiding and abetting treason, and committing obstruction of justice, pure and simple.

  42. Major Z says:

    “Thoughts and prayers”
    You beat me to it.
    Reading Thomas’ concurrence is a frightening experience all should be required to endure. In essence he believes that rights not enumerated are nonexistent.