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The Clarence Thomas pick 20 years later: Disorder in the court


Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas meets with Republican Senator Strom Thurmond at the Capitol July 8, 1991 in Washington, DC (Photo by Terry Ashe/Liaison)

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
July 2011

Justice Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush 20 years ago this month to the Supreme Court. The nomination ignited one of the most divisive, contentious, and explosive Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings in this nation's history. The Senate eventually confirmed Thomas to the court. by the narrowest vote in a century

Thomas has not uttered a word during oral arguments before the court in the past five years.

Meanwhile his alleged misdeeds have mounted. First, there was his wife Ginni's fulsome earnings, which she received from assorted right wing foundations and think tanks, most prominently a right-wing activist outfit called Liberty Central.

Then there was the fact that Thomas had an apparent lapse of memory and failed to disclose her earnings. He subsequently found his memory after being ripped publicly for failing to come forward. But he did not reveal speaking fees and perks he got from a bevy of the same conservative groups that his wife worked for and had close political ties to.

Next, Thomas accepted gifts worth thousands and solicited funds for a museum in his hometown of Pin Point, Georgia from Harlan Crow, a Texas real-estate magnate and bank roller of right-wing causes.

Then there was the strong hint that Thomas committed perjury in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee during his court confirmation hearings. And that he compounded that by quite possibly lying under oath to Congress during the hearings about whether he sexually harassed former female staff members, most notably Anita Hill.

High Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who Thomas replaced retired from the court at 83. Thomas is 63 and he says he hopes to match Marshall's retirement age when he leaves the court. With reasonably good health, he'd have two more decades to wreak monumental legal, constitutional and personal havoc on the court and the nation. That's certainly been the case for his first twenty years.
His trademark has been farcical, insipid and more often than not lone wolf votes to defend torture against foreign and domestic prisoners, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil with all white jury convicting blacks, and strip searches of teens at schools, reflexive votes against racial and gender discrimination lawsuits, and defense of the rights of corporations and the rich.

This is all rooted in his static, arcane, Smithsonian unwillingness to change one "I" or "T" in the Constitution as originally framed. There is absolutely no doubt that if the constitutionality of the health care reform law winds up in the High Court's lap Thomas will not bat an eye based on past performance and his strict constructionist read of the Constitution vote to dump it.
But it's the issue of race that has kept Thomas in the spotlight and the center of controversy for two decades and made him the Supreme Court justice most loved by ultra-conservatives and loathed by liberals and a majority of African-Americans during the last two decades.

In speeches before conservative groups and in his autobiography Thomas made no effort to hide why he's more than willing even giddily happy to wage relentless public and private war against civil rights leaders and liberal Democrats. He actually believes that race is a crutch, an impediment and even an archaic relic of the past in American life.
He beat the odds and withering opposition to climb to the judicial top, and his tenure on the court is supposedly personal proof of that. He actually believes even more deeply that there is no contradiction for an African-American to be a conservative and to espouse conservative principles.

For many that types him as a contrarian, if not out an out political odd ball, since it's long been an article of faith of many blacks and liberals that racism and conservatism are two sides of the same coin. But Thomas is by no mean an anomaly. Many blacks oppose abortion and gay rights and affirmative action and are just as hard line on crime and punishment, and pro-business as Thomas.

Despite the ritual Thomas bashing during the past two decades, the hard reality is that Thomas is one of the nine most prestigious and implicitly powerful judges in the nation. This forces a grudging acknowledgment even deference among interest groups and that even includes some blacks. He has been invited and courteously received on occasion at some predominantly black schools and events. They sparked the inevitable protests and demands that Thomas be disinvited. But Thomas came and spoke anyway.

That was the case in June when Thomas was invited to give a keynote speech at the dedication of a courthouse in Augusta, Georgia to black judge and civil rights advocate John Ruffin. The two men were at diametric ends of pole legally and politically but despite the grumbles about dishonoring Ruffin's name and principles by inviting Thomas, he came and spoke anyway. He is after all a sitting Supreme Court Judge.

Thomas claimed at his confirmation hearings that he would bring "no agenda or ideology to the court." That was at best the requisite confirmation ingratiating talk and at worst, well, a lie. Thomas's conservative, unorthodox, views and legal opinions on the death penalty, age and gender bias, first amendment, prisoner rights and affirmative action cases were well known by the time he hit the court in 1991.

He certainly tipped his hand enough on them as an appeals court judge and as Reagan's picked chair of the EEOC. Thomas didn't stiffen his stance on judicial conservatism to curry any favor with white conservatives or as revenge against civil rights, women's and civil liberties groups for hounding and hectoring him, and making life holy hell for him before, during and after his the confirmation hearings and narrow Senate vote to confirm him on the court.
Thomas is in the twenty years after those raucous confirmation war and will remain what he's always been, a judge that if the issue doesn't square with myopic conservative dogma can take the vote against is in the bank even if his is the only vote.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and Monday co-host of the Al Sharpton Show. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson

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