Justice Clarence Thomas, the reticent and enigmatic Supreme Court Justice who for the near entirety of his 19 year term has barely spoken a public word in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court building. Many may recall the disputed 2000 elections and the unforgettable legal drama that was unfolding within the courtroom. It seemed almost too surreal to witness such a historical, Romanesque debate playing out on television to determine who would be the 43rd President of the United States.
The enormity of the decision was so profound that the Court agreed to televise the debate, the first time it had done so in its’ history. Each of the well tenured Justices, seated in their elevated perch, took turns weighing in on the salient aspects of the case and occasionally engaging in verbal tennis matches with opposing counsel. All, except for Justice Thomas, who seemed to be incapable of mustering up an intelligent comment and simply resigned himself to spectator status, while his colleagues meted out the future of our country.
Thomas, the only African-American Supreme Court Justice, failed to raise one single issue during the entire debate, leaving many to wonder about his capacity to serve as a Justice in the highest court of the land. By refusing to engage in the proceedings, Thomas cast a curious cloud of doubt over himself, that has followed him throughout his tenure. Perhaps, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the decision? Or maybe he had a major case of stage fright? Whatever the truth may be, we expect our most exalted arbiters of justice to be capable stewards in the interpretation of the law, regardless of how daunting the task may be.
Thomas unsurprisingly sided with the conservatives on the court, 5-4 and essentially handed George Bush the Presidency despite Al Gore having over 500,000 more popular votes and ignoring calls for a complete recount. The political division within the court was also quite noteworthy; conservatives out numbering liberals in a decision that ostensibly favored a Republican candidate. Thomas was nominated by George H. W. Bush in 1991, amidst a contentious and scandalous debate, involving characters like Anita Hill and unforgettable testimony like, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”, which sounds more like a cheesy line from a cheap porno, than a comment allegedly made by a Judge being considered for a lifetime role on the Supreme Court.
Despite Thomas’s conservative demeanor and questionable ethics, many African-Americans who were initially opposed to his nomination, began to have empathy for him as the public circus surrounding him, revealed an all too familiar theme among African-Americans with regard to constantly proving their credentials and defending their character. The most confounding aspect of Thomas’s nomination was that he was clearly unprepared to be a Supreme Court Justice and was obviously being used as a token candidate by H.W. Bush in attempt to maintain diversity on the court, in the absence of the great Thurgood Marshall.
Clearly, H.W. Bush was motivated to replace Marshall’s minority presence on the court, but failed miserably in his offering of Thomas as a capable justice. Replacing an icon like Thurgood Marshall would not be an easy task for any sitting President, considering Marshall’s iconic status as a civil rights pioneer. However, the proposition of Thomas as a replacement for the first African-American justice is an affront to the legacy of Marshall and a sham that was perpetrated on all citizens.
Since assuming his role on the Supreme Court, Thomas has consistently voted in lock step with the conservative justices, gaining him a reputation as Antonin Scalia’s faithful lackey. Thomas benefited from well established affirmative action initiatives in the 1970′s, allowing him to become head of the EEOC in 1982, and later an Associate Federal Judge, however, Thomas has consistently voted against measures that would reinforce civil rights and protect affirmative action initiatives. He has cast the deciding vote to make it harder for blacks to prove they were victims of job discrimination and also voted against expanding voting rights for blacks and, in one case, disputed the history of using the 1964 Voting Rights Act to help elect more blacks in the South.
Thurgood Marshall was a resounding force in the creation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and fought diligently for its passage and on occasion risked his life by traveling alone through parts of the South, to raise awareness of civil rights issues. Thomas on the other hand, would seem to be content to overturn every piece of civil rights legislation that Marshall fought to implement.
When Justice Thomas appeared at the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2002, the Black Law Students Association there staged a teach-in protest, and the five African-American law faculty members boycotted his appearances and issued a joint letter which stated in part: “We will not participate in any institutional gesture that honors and endorses what Justice Thomas does.”
Clearly, Justice Thomas will not be remembered kindly in the annals of African-American history, his tenure on the Supreme Court will be regarded as a farce and an enduring insult to the legacy of Thurgood Marshall. Furthermore, if the appointment of minorities such as Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor are an attempt to recognize diversity within our country and within our justice system, then African-Americans greatly deserve a much more suitable representative.
Barrington D. Ross