Thirty years on the Supreme Court
Clarence Thomas and the American dream
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Last Friday marked the 30th anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. His staid, often quiet presence disguises a tenacious commitment to judicial conservatism.
One way to commemorate his anniversary is to admit something upfront: I believe Clarence Thomas has the most enthralling—and deeply American—biography of any living American.
Such a claim demands careful scrutiny.
For years, numerous friends had said his acclaimed autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, was one of the most intriguing and satisfying autobiographies of any living person. With the world shut down in March 2020, I had more than enough time to finally read Thomas’s biography. Rare is the occasion where I cannot put a book down. This was one such occasion.
The book confirms that one of the narratives Americans live by is indeed true, and that is the way of meritocratic mobility. The virtues of hard work and personal responsibility really can lead to success. It is not healthy or right for Americans to see themselves as bound to a permanent economic underclass or caste. Clarence Thomas embodies the American spirit.
Born into deep poverty and with an absent father, Thomas encountered the cruelest forms of racism that one would expect to encounter living in the American South of the 1950s. Undeterred and cared for by a determined set of grandparents, Thomas and his brother were taught that people are responsible for their own destiny and that perpetual victimhood is good for making excuses—but not for personal advancement. Thomas’s childhood was defined by Christian virtues, hard work, discipline, and no expectation of entitlement.
That ethic would pay off as Thomas excelled in school and eventually made his way to Yale Law School. Law degree in hand, Thomas would go on to serve with the Attorney General’s office of Missouri. He worked as a senior staffer for Senator John Danforth and the Department of Education. Later, he served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was catapulted onto the national stage when President George H. W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court. Then followed his tumultuous confirmation on Oct. 15, 1991.
Does that mean his life is without fault? By no means. His autobiography is filled with admissions of moral failures, from alcoholism to a failed marriage to his own feeling of guilt over being an inadequate father to his son, Jamal. But it is also a narrative of tremendous victory, punctuated by a willingness to defy the demands of groupthink. As the nation would learn, Justice Clarence Thomas possesses a fierce intellectual independence streak.
To court watchers, Justice Thomas is known for advancing the conservative tradition of Originalism—the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted by what its provisions meant at the time of their passage. He is a textualist who believes that the actual words and grammar of the Constitution matter. He is a conservative Catholic who regularly attends mass (Catholic friends of mine remark of showing up at mass and being shocked to see Clarence Thomas kneeling beside them). He is avowedly pro-life and an intellectual proponent of the Christian natural law tradition’s importance to the Western legal tradition.
He’s also in touch with the common man despite his membership in America’s elite echelons. As he recounts, Thomas and his wife enjoy traveling the nation in their recreational vehicle, setting up camp throughout America when the nation’s highest Court is not in session. Basking in his anonymity, when fellow campers ask what he does for a living, he casually remarks that he’s just a government attorney in Washington, D.C. In a similar vein, he believes the Constitution should not be left to specialists, so he is careful to craft his opinions in an idiom that non-specialists would understand. As he memorably said in an interview with Bill Kristol, “Genius is taking a twenty-dollar idea and putting it into a two-dollar sentence. It’s not taking a two-dollar idea and putting it into a twenty-dollar sentence.” This is sage wisdom not only for lawyers, but for all writers.
Justice Thomas can’t serve on the Supreme Court forever. Time slows down for no person. As his career enters its later stages, we must see Justice Thomas as the embodiment of both an American and Augustinian paradox: Through setback can come triumph, and through grit and independence can come a retrieval of America’s constitutional ideals.
After reading Justice Thomas’s biography, I dared to write him a note of appreciation. I did not expect that he would reply. But, to my shock and gratitude, he sent a handwritten note of appreciation back, which now stands as one of my prized possessions.
I joke with friends that if I could have dinner with any living American, it would be Justice Clarence Thomas. So, Justice Thomas, if I’m ever in town and on the off chance you are reading this, dinner is on me. You may grow tired of my endless questions, but you will not tire of my admiration and appreciation. Every American owes you both.
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