This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Clarence Thomas’s swearing in on the United States Supreme Court. National Review Online asked some experts, including some former clerks for Thomas, to discuss his record.
Justice Thomas has had a huge impact on American law during his 20 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. He writes beautiful and well-researched opinions brimming with historical information. Justice Thomas is a consistent originalist who always follows the text of the Constitution wherever it leads. His opinions combine the textualism of Justice Hugo Black with a thorough discussion of the original meaning of the constitutional clauses at issue in any given case. Justice Thomas has led the Supreme Court in the revival of federalism, of Second Amendment rights, and with respect to the Confrontation Clause. His concurrences and dissents have had an effect. I know from teaching Supreme Court cases to law students and college students that Justice Thomas’s opinions are always among the best. Justice Thomas has reshaped American law very powerfully.
— Steven G. Calabresi is a professor of law at Northwestern University who clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Robert Bork.MATTHEW J. FRANCK
When I think about the 20-year career of Justice Clarence Thomas, one word keeps coming to mind to characterize the whole man: fearlessness. Clarence Thomas has never been a trimmer, tacking this way and that for momentary advantage or the good opinion of others. Even Justice Antonin Scalia, who calls himself a “half-hearted originalist,” acknowledges Thomas’s more uncompromising devotion to the original meaning of the Constitution, which leads him (properly, in my view) to take a more skeptical approach to the force of the Supreme Court’s own precedents.
Allow me to highlight just a couple of Thomas’s recent opinions that show the quality of his mind and character. In 2007’s Morse v. Frederick (concurring alone) and in this year’s Brown v. Entertainment Merchants (dissenting alone), Justice Thomas recaptured a lost understanding of legal principles, once taken for granted, regarding the protected status of minor children under the tutelage of their teachers and, most importantly, their parents. In his Morse opinion, Thomas exploded a generation’s worth of errors regarding the “freedom of speech” of students in public schools, and in the Brown case, he cut through a fog of confusion to demonstrate that purveyors of violent video games have no right to “speak” to children “without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.” Solidly grounded in history and principle, these opinions are bound to look better and better over time.
Does Clarence Thomas care about the absurd caricatures that have long held him to be Scalia’s Sancho Panza? Does he care what silly people think about his characteristic silence during oral argument? Does he care that left-wing journalists are once again retailing the discredited accusations of Anita Hill after all these years? Of course not. Fearless as always, Thomas is bigger than his enemies, and altogether his own man.
If you want to know what was the school of his courage, read his powerful memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (better yet, listen to the audio version, which he reads himself). It’s a book that should be read alongside Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. It’s the one thing he has produced that may endure even longer than his contributions to jurisprudence.
— Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and a regular blogger at NRO’s Bench Memos.