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A Personal (well, not really) Portrait of Clarence Thomas

October 18, 2011

Ralph Rossum has written an opinion piece in the Orange County Register praising Justice Clarence Thomas’ conservative ways.

I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with anything Justice Thomas has said in his opinions. However, I gained great respect for him as a person during law school. He is a bit of a local hero at my old school, and I had the opportunity to hear him speak several times, and to hear the points of view of some of the people that admire him so much.

Here’s the thing, the guy is hilarious. Not in a self-absorbed, stand-up-comedian, “look at me I’m so funny” kind of way, but just because he’s such a ridiculous character. Of all the appellate and high court Judges and Justices I’ve heard speak, or talked with (which is, admittedly, not that many) Justice Thomas is by far the most down-to-Earth. He is exceedingly humble, and easy to talk to.

But he’s just so grumpy! I mean, look at this photo:

Grumpy, grumpy, grumpy! If he were one of the seven dwarfs…well, I don’t have to tell you which one he’d be.

When he speaks he will say that he has the utmost respect for his fellow Justices, whether they agree with him or not. He will say that the court is not-politicized, despite what we all believe. And he will tell you that he doesn’t pay attention to what the media says about him or the court. In short, he will tell you that he can’t stand Washington politics, and thank god, because the court is nothing like the rest of Washington.

You would expect a politician to say as much. Normally, I would chalk it all up to being part of the game, and completely disregard it. But in Justice Thomas’ case, he walks the walk. I’m forced to believe him because his behavior doesn’t make sense otherwise. If there were an award for “Supreme Court Justice most in need of professional public relations consultation” he would walk out in a land slide. I mean, there’s the whole Anita Hill thing. Then there’s the fact that he never asks questions during oral argument, never reads the amicus briefs, and never smiles when a member of the media is present (he actually has a wonderful smile and laugh, but you’d never know it). And it seems that he’s always under hot water for something, last year it was the Heritage Foundation stuff with his wife and refusing to recuse himself. Justice Thomas…I mean…it’s just like…he’s really, really bad at making friends. And for some reason I like that about him. He’s not a game player…I believe what he says. I don’t agree with him, but I trust his authenticity.

Rossum praises Justice Thomas’ approach to Constitutional interpretation (joking aside, you can tell that I really do respect him because I keep referring to him as ‘Justice Thomas’ instead of ‘Thomas’, ‘Clarence’, ‘C-Dizzle’, or ‘the one who always looks constipated and never says a word during oral arguments’). He is, if you don’t know, a super arch-Originalist. Here’s the thing: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And getting to the bottom of what Constitutional provisions “mean” is not as easy a deciding whether the Constitution is a living document or not. So Rossum’s analogy of basing current Constitutional decisions on precedent rather than the original being like multiple coats of paint distorting a delicately crafted piece of furniture is well taken. Nevertheless, its pretty obvious that having each court reinterpret each Constitutional provision from the bottom up every time it decides a case is going to lead to some wildly diverse decisions. And if Justice Thomas is so afraid of incoherence, as he states in his concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry, well…then…his approach doesn’t seem to solve the problem in the long run.

I don’t really want the current court deciding on the Constitutional merits of abortion, or outlining the 4th Amendment. That’s not a dig on the court as much as it’s just a reflection of my nerves. There’s too much at stake with some of these decisions, and I don’t trust just nine justices. I’d rather we rely on input from the past justices as well, if for no other reason than to level out the frequent political swings of the court.

Also, Rossum doesn’t challenge the integrity of Justice Thomas’ decisions. But all of the current Justices, liberal and conservative alike, should be subject to harsh criticism on this point. Their decisions always magically fall along party lines, and it doesn’t jive with how they keep saying they are depoliticized.

I smell bullshit.

For instance, I can’t say that I know how Justice Thomas feels about religion. But I get the impression that aside from Constitutional issues, Thomas doesn’t have a problem with seeing the Ten Commandments displayed in public. Thomas would swear that he doesn’t mix his beliefs with his jurisprudence. So, never mind that it just so happens that his legal analysis is always in step with his personal convictions. (See Van Orden v. Perry, Gore, and also that whole Heritage Foundation thing…really bothers me, and again the tax thing recently.)

But if you’re gonna target Justice Thomas on that, then you’ve gotta dig all of the Justices out. I mean, lets face it, sad but true: all of us are guilty of backwards rationalization.

Bottom line: Justice Thomas deserves a lot of credit for being who he is, and for getting here from whence he came – even if you disagree with his Constitutional interpretations.

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