October 23, 1991 – Clarence Thomas Sworn in as Supreme Court Associate Justice

On this day in history, Clarence Thomas was sworn in by Justice Byron White as the 106th Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was to have sworn in Thomas during a ceremony initially scheduled for October 21, but the ceremony was postponed until October 23 because of the death of Rehnquist’s wife. In a great historical irony, Thomas was filling the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in September 29, 2009

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in September 29, 2009

Clarence Thomas was born near Savannah, Georgia on June 23, 1948. He received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974. He served in a number of legal and political positions, and was nominated to the Court by President H.W. Bush.

As Associate Justice, Thomas has an interesting reputation on the Court.

For example, as of February 22, 2014, eight years had elapsed since Thomas asked a single question during a Supreme Court oral argument. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin opined:

His behavior on the bench has gone from curious to bizarre to downright embarrassing, for himself and for the institution he represents.”

This reluctance to speak in public, as well as his tendency to concur with Antonin Scalia in a great many cases, earned Thomas the sobriquet “Antonin Scalia’s sock puppet.”

Possibly of greater significance where these two justices are concerned, the “New York Times” revealed that Thomas, along with Antonin Scalia, had accepted invitations to “retreats” sponsored by conservative billionaire Charles Koch for political strategizing. Nevertheless, neither of those justices recused themselves in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (558 US 310,2010). As summarized by The Center for Public Integrity:

The Citizens United ruling, released in January 2010, tossed out the corporate and union ban on making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.”

Mr. Koch and his brother, David Koch, were among the main beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which valorized these huge amounts of spending as an exercise in “free speech.”

As for Thomas’s jurisprudence, Jeffrey Toobin observed about Thomas:

For better or worse, Thomas has made important contributions to the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court. He has imported once outré conservative ideas, about such issues as gun rights under the Second Amendment and deregulation of political campaigns, into the mainstream.”

Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas

His position on affirmative action, comparing its effects to those of slavery and segregation, have made liberals cringe (and no doubt have Thurgood Marshall rolling over somewhere).

Nevertheless, as Akhil Amar, a liberal professor at Yale Law School, averred, “Thomas’s views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.”

Tom Goldstein, the publisher and co-founder of SCOTUS blog, wrote:

I disagree profoundly with Justice Thomas’s views on many questions, but if you believe that Supreme Court decision-making should be a contest of ideas rather than power, so that the measure of a justice’s greatness is his contribution to new and thoughtful perspectives that enlarge the debate, then Justice Thomas is now our greatest justice.”

On February 13, 2016, Antonin Scalia died in his sleep at the age of 79. His death may have been behind Justice Clarence Thomas’ decision to ask a question from the bench for the first time in 10 years. That same month, Thomas startled court watchers when he suddenly spoke up asking a line of questions concerning the Second Amendment.


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