The Strong, Silent Type
Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher are the latest journos to explore the enigma that is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Their book, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, drops April 24. Our resident Supreme Court guru, Richard Brust, has these questions for the duo about Thomas and his take on race, privilege and conservative idealism. (Check out the full interview at ABAJournal.com.)
Q: As African American journalists, what perspective do you bring to Thomas that others lack?
A: We bring a history of growing up in black communities, reporting in black communities and of understanding the expectations that highly successful African Americans such as Thomas face.
For most black Americans, race is an inescapable factor in their lives. And that is true for Thomas. It is not his only identity, for sure, but it is the most crucial part of his identity, the complexities of which we explore in a way that others haven’t. As we write in the book, as black journalists we understand Thomas’ desire to escape limitation.
Q: Talk about the Thomas enigma–a justice who is said to be humble and accessible behind the scenes, but appears remote and inaccessible on the bench and to the press.
A: In many ways this is a theme that runs through the book. Offstage, Thomas can be charming and warm. His speeches convey a strong sense of humility. He loves mentoring and talking to young people. He is known for engaging the court’s elevator operators and cafeteria workers in meaningful conversations. It is clear that he identifies with these hardworking, unpretentious folks.
At the same time, he is a very stubborn and proud man with a long memory for slights, real and imagined. And if that was ever going to change, his scarring confirmation experience eviscerated any chance of that happening. He blames liberal interest groups and the press for ruining his reputation, and more than 15 years later he has yet to forgive. He catalogs slights from high school. He saves the rejection letters he received from potential employers when he struggled to find a job out of Yale. And in private conversation, he bitterly invokes those who opposed his nomination. On the bench, his silence at oral argument only adds to this brooding image.
Through the years, he has cited multiple reasons for rarely asking questions in public at the court. But his friends agree on this: The more people make an issue of his silence, the less likely Thomas is to become more vocal from the bench.
Q: Will he play a more active role on a more conservative court?
A: That would be his hope. One of the justices Thomas most admires is John Marshall Harlan, the former slave owner who nonetheless became the sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld the doctrine of separate but equal. More than a half century later, Harlan was vindicated in the Brown case.
Thomas sees himself in that mold as someone whose opinions may be out of step now but whose writings can be a beacon to a future generation of jurists and justices. Right now, he stands as a hero to many conservative legal scholars because of his uncompromising opinions. Some would say his moment of greater influence is drawing near. But a close reading of many of Thomas’ opinions reveals a kind of ideological purity that puts him to the right of all of his colleagues.
So while he is likely to find himself in the majority more frequently as the court tacks right, it seems unlikely that in the near term the court will be prepared to overturn precedents and otherwise move as far as Thomas has advocated over the years in his dissents and concurrences.