Justice for the little guy
BOOKS | Author builds a new narrative about Clarence Thomas
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With a solid majority of conservative-leaning justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, the left wing of American politics has been relentless in its attacks on the court’s legitimacy of late. Especially since the court’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the justices have been subject to protests at their homes, insults to their ethics, and calls for court packing. Justice Clarence Thomas, long the target of liberal ire, has borne the brunt of these assaults. That makes Amul Thapar’s new book The People’s Justice (Regnery 2023) a well-timed defense of Thomas’ jurisprudence and reputation.
Thapar, himself a U.S. Court of Appeals judge often short-listed for the high court under a future Republican president, sets out to disprove a frequently recited liberal canard: that Thomas and his conservative brethren are in the pocket of big corporations, special interests, and elite culture. By telling the stories of 12 everyday Americans whose cases made their way to the top, and then explaining how Thomas ruled in their appeals, Thapar endeavors to establish a new narrative with Thomas as champion of the little guy.
Some of the dozen cases were national news at the time, but Thapar brings them all to life by setting up the behind-the-scenes story. So we meet Susette Kelo, victim of an aggressive exercise of eminent domain that flattened her little pink house for an economic development project that never happened. Or Otis McDonald, a Chicago janitor who needed a handgun for self-defense when gangs and drug lords took over his South Side neighborhood.
A book written about everyday people like them is also a book written for everyday readers. One need not be a lawyer to understand and enjoy Thapar’s stories—he intentionally avoids legal lingo or deep jurisprudential analysis. Thomas’ role in each chapter comes only at the end, for a few pages, as Thapar explains the written opinions in each matter.
Interestingly, not a single Thomas opinion from the dozen cases garnered a majority of votes from the court. Each is a side opinion, a concurrence or dissent, setting forth Thomas’ own views of the question in the case. These individual opinions set forth Thomas’ individual views with the most clarity, as he explains, often with great boldness, how his understanding of the Constitution’s original meaning resolves the case.
Readers who wish to know Thomas’ own inspiring life story should start with his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son (Harper 2008), or the more recent Created Equal documentary (2020). Thapar offers instead a window into his jurisprudence as applied to real cases.