25 Years Later, How Clarence Thomas Has Transformed the Supreme Court

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The Daily Signal by Philip Wegmann

BE FUNKY Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at Hillsdale College screenshot 2

When the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in the fall of 1991, he was still new to the flowing black robes that cloak federal magistrates.

A rookie justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Thomas had served as a judge only since March 1990. Still raw from a bruising, 107-day confirmation process that wrapped up at the end of October 1991, Thomas had only a few weeks to prepare to hear cases that November.

“The easiest thing in the world under the circumstances would just be to go along to get along. He didn’t,” remembers Gregory Katsas, now a partner at Jones Day law firm and one of Thomas’ original cadre of clerks.

Instead, in an early episode that would become a trademark over the course of his career, the newest member of the court split with the other eight justices to write three solo dissents on complex and controversial cases.

When the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in the fall of 1991, he was still new to the flowing black robes that cloak federal magistrates.

A rookie justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Thomas had served as a judge only since March 1990. Still raw from a bruising, 107-day confirmation process that wrapped up at the end of October 1991, Thomas had only a few weeks to prepare to hear cases that November.

“The easiest thing in the world under the circumstances would just be to go along to get along. He didn’t,” remembers Gregory Katsas, now a partner at Jones Day law firm and one of Thomas’ original cadre of clerks.

Instead, in an early episode that would become a trademark over the course of his career, the newest member of the court split with the other eight justices to write three solo dissents on complex and controversial cases.

Twenty-five years ago today—on July 1, 1991—President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the high court. His subsequent independence and consistent judicial philosophy have endeared him to conservatives, earned the grudging respect of liberals, and helped transform the court.

Recent reports that Thomas planned to retire after a quarter-century on the court rocked the legal world. President Barack Obama already has nominated appellate judge Merrick Garland to take the seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. If Thomas retired, the ideological balance of the bench would tip and the court could shift course permanently.

But those close to the 68-year-old jurist dismiss the retirement rumors as groundless.

“I feel like we’re at halftime at a football game,” says John Yoo, a Berkeley Law professor and former Thomas clerk. “We can look back at how his performance has been in the first half, but we really care about the second half and if his team is going to win.”

And by all accounts, Thomas has had a productive first half.

His career has been marked by a consistent drive to advance the judicial philosophy of originalism, a principle that requires interpreting the text of the Constitution within the bounds of how it would have been understood 229 years ago.

That philosophy often places Thomas in the minority and has prompted some of his most provocative written dissents on issues such as abortion, guns, and voting rights.

For conservatives, his jurisprudence is a refreshing cause célèbre.

“He looks to how the Constitution was understood at the time of the ratification. He goes to first principles,” John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor and former Thomas clerk told the Los Angeles Times. “He is willing to challenge precedents that deviate from the original understanding.”

Liberal constitutional scholars see a dangerous threat to progress in his judicial philosophy.

“In 25 years on the court, Justice Thomas has shown himself to be very conservative and more willing to radically change the law than his colleagues,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine Law School[…]

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Permission to republish granted by the Heritage Foundation.

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