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Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He is considered to be part of the "conservative wing" in the current court. He is the second African-American to serve on the nation's highest court and as of 2005 is the youngest justice, by nearly nine years.
Personal historyClarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, a small community outside Savannah. His father abandoned him when he was only a year old and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, leaving Thomas to be taken care of by his mother, Leola Anderson . When Thomas was six, his younger brother accidentally set a fire that burned the family's house down, so they moved to a small apartment in Savannah. The year after, they went to live with their mother's father, Myers Anderson . Anderson had a fuel oil business that also sold ice; Thomas often helped him make deliveries.
His grandfather believed in hard work and self-reliance. In 1975, when Thomas read Race and Economics by economist Thomas Sowell, he found an intellectual foundation for this philosophy. The book criticized social reforms by government and instead argued for individual action to overcome circumstances and adversity. Thomas later said the book changed his life.
Raised Roman Catholic (he later attended an Episcopal church with his wife, but returned to the Catholic Church in the late 1990s), Thomas considered entering the priesthood, and briefly attended Immaculate Conception Seminary, a Catholic seminary in Missouri, where he encountered some racism. Thomas later attended Holy Cross College, where he co-founded the school's Black Student Union and received an A.B., cum laude.
Thomas explored his political identity as he was growing up. He flirted with being a radical in college, but he was subsequently influenced by the libertarian writings of Ayn Rand and gravitated towards conservative viewpoints. He received a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974.
He has married twice, most recently to Virginia Lamp in 1987. He has only one child, a boy, Jamal Adeen , from his first marriage. His first wife was Kate Ambush , married in 1971, whom he divorced with in 1984.
In 1981, he began his rise through the Reagan administration. From 1981-1982, he served as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the US Department of Education, and as Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982-1990. Thomas cautiously accepted these assignments aware of the public thrust for placing minorities in government positions.
In 1991, upon the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to replace him. This was widely considered a move in the conservative direction for the court. Marshall was the only black justice on the court, so the selection of Thomas as his successor preserved the existing racial mix court.
Organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Organization for Women opposed his appointment to the Supreme Court because of his criticism of affirmative action and suspected anti-abortion position. Thomas asserted that he had not developed a stance on the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.
The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Thomas about his political opinions and constitutional interpretation over several days. Toward the expected end of the confirmation hearings, Democratic staffers for the committee leaked to the media the contents of an FBI report which reported that a former colleague of Thomas, University of Oklahoma law school professor Anita Hill, had accused him of sexually harassing her when the two had worked together at the US Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In particular, Hill alleged that Thomas had openly discussed his interest in pornographic films featuring the actor Long Dong Silver and that he had once shown her a can of Coca-Cola and asked her why someone had placed a pubic hair on it.
Hill was summoned to testify before the committee, and the hearings were broadcast on national television. When questioned about the allegations, Thomas emotionally called the hearings "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks". Thomas avoided answering the charges directly until forced to do so; ultimately he rested on a blanket denial of all the accusations.
Hill's detractors alleged that her claims were implausible. Hill had not lodged a complaint in the ten years after the alleged harassment. Also she sought to continue working for Thomas when he moved to the EEOC from the Department of Education, despite the alleged history of harassment. Hill's advocates argued that Hill was merely trying to further her career and that, despite the fact that she was a Yale Law graduate, she had no other options for employment.
Almost all of Thomas's former female associates and employees supported him over Hill. As Senator Joseph Lieberman stated at the time, "I have contacted associates, women who worked with Judge Thomas during his time at the Department of Education and EEOC, and in the calls that I and my staff have made there has been universal support for Judge Thomas and a clear indication by all of the women we spoke to that there was never, certainly not, a case of sexual harassment, and not even a hint of impropriety." Many of those former female associates testified on Thomas's behalf. For example, Nancy Altman from the Department of Education testified: "I consider myself a feminist. I am pro-choice. I care deeply about women's issues. In addition to working with Clarence Thomas at the Department of Education, I shared an office with him for two years in this building. Our desks were a few feet apart. Because we worked in such close quarters, I could hear virtually every conversation for two years that Clarence Thomas had. Not once in those two years did I ever hear Clarence Thomas make a sexist or offensive comment, not once. . . . It is not credible that Clarence Thomas could have engaged in the kinds of behavior that Anita Hill alleges, without any of the women who he worked closest with -- dozens of us, we could spend days having women come up, his secretaries, his chief of staff, his other assistants, his colleagues -- without any of us having sensed, seen or heard something."
Hill's detractors also pointed to many contradictions in her testimony. For example, she initially denied any knowledge of a news report that Senate staffers had told her that "her signed affidavit alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas would be the instrument that would quietly and behind the scenes, would force him to withdraw his name." Senator Arlen Specter observed that after consulting with her lawyers, Hill "flatly changed" her testimony "by identifying a Senate staffer, who she finally said told her that she was told that if she came forward, [Thomas] would withdraw . . . ." This led Senator Specter to point out that "the testimony of Professor Hill in the morning was flat out perjury and that she specifically changed it in the afternoon when confronted with the possibility of being contradicted."
Another inconsistency was in Hill's treatment of the phone logs that Thomas's secretary had kept for him at the EEOC. Those logs showed that Hill had called Thomas about a dozen times since leaving the EEOC for a career as a law professor, including one time when Hill called Thomas's office to notify him that she was visiting D.C.; in that message, she had left her hotel room number and phone number with Thomas's secretary. Hill initially told the Washington Post that the phone logs were "garbage," and then implied in her opening statement to the Senate that the phone logs had mostly represented the times when Hill had called to speak to Diane Holt, Thomas's secretary.
Under questioning, however, Hill admitted that "I do not deny the accuracy of these messages." Moreover,Diane Holt testified that if Hill had ever called to speak with Holt, that call would not have been recorded in Thomas's phone logs. Holt further testified that the phone log represented only the occasions when Thomas had been unavailable to take the call. In fact, Hill had additionally called Thomas on several other occasions that were not recorded in the logs because Thomas took the call.
Hill also contradicted herself in attempting to explain the reasons for having called Thomas. At one point, she claimed that "the things that occurred after I left the EEOC occurred during a time -- any matter, calling him from the university, occurred during a time when he was no longer a threat to me of any kind. He could not threaten my job. I already had tenure there." But later in the same session, Senator Simpson asked her, "if what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God's name, when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, and you left it in 1983, why in God's name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?" Hill responded, "That's a very good question. And I'm sure that I cannot answer that to your satisfaction. That is one of the things that I have tried to do today. I have suggested that I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life."
In the end, the Committee did not find sufficient evidence to corroborate Anita Hill's claim. Hill's supporters later insisted that relevant testimony from Angela Wright, a PR director for the EEOC and a witness to the alleged offensive conduct, was suppressed, even though the Democrats controlled the Senate. (Democrats were reluctant to call Angela Wright as a witness after Thomas testified that he had fired her for calling another employee a "faggot.") Thomas was confirmed by the Senate with a 52-48 vote on October 15, 1991. He took his seat on October 23, 1991.
On the Court, Thomas has argued for an "originalist" view of the Constitution faithful to that document's text and history. Although Thomas frequently votes with Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas's reasoning for his decisions, as expressed in his opinions, sometimes diverge from Scalia's based on Thomas's alternative readings of Constitutional history. And as discussed below, Thomas's originalism occasionally leads him to take a "liberal" position on various issues.
In general, Thomas has been a proponent of an expansive First Amendment interpretation, arguing that anonymous speech, money donated to political campaigns, and commercial speech attempting to sell products all qualified for protection. In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), Thomas agreed with a majority of the Court that a law banning anonymous campaign literature violated the First Amendment. Scalia disagreed. He argued that the evidence was insufficient to conclude there was an original understanding and noted the wide popular support for laws against it. But while the Court majority based its decision on the fact that anonymity has "played an important role in the progress of mankind", Thomas filed a concurrence arguing that protection of anonymous speech was part of the original understanding of the amendment, noting that The Federalist Papers were published anonymously.
He has also taken the point of view that the Commerce Clause should be narrowly interpreted, covering only actual interstate commerce, not things related to it; he thus concurred with the Court's decisions in United States v. Lopez invalidating a federal law prohibiting possession of a firearm in a school zone.
Thomas has followed a narrow construction of the Eighth Amendment. In Hudson v. McMillan (1992), he dissented, arguing that the beating of a Louisiana inmate by three prison guards was not cruel and unusual punishment. Thomas wrote that the beating, which left Hudson with minor bruises, facial swelling, loosened teeth, and a cracked dental plate, did not cause sufficient harm to meet the constitutional standard; however, he left open the option of a criminal charge or a tort claim, just not a constitutional claim. "In my view, a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not "cruel and unusual punishment." In concluding to the contrary, the Court today goes far beyond our precedents."
Thomas has carved out a distinctive voice for himself on the highly-charged racial issues before the Court. In Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), the Court overturned a lower court ruling forcing the city of Kansas City, Missouri to spend more money on their predominantly black school system to attract white suburban children. Thomas filed a separate concurrence where he argued "'Racial isolation' itself is not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is," and that integration assumed that blacks could not get ahead on their own.
In Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995), Thomas commented on affirmative action. "I write separately,. . .to express my disagreement with the premise. . .that there is a racial paternalism exception to the principle of equal protection. . .That these programs may have been motivated, in part, by good intentions cannot provide refuge from the principle that under our Constitution, the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race. As far as the Constitution is concerned, it is irrelevant whether a government's racial classifications are drawn by those who wish to oppress a race or by those who have a sincere desire to help those thought to be disadvantaged. There can be no doubt that the paternalism that appears to lie at the heart of this program is at war with the principle of inherent equality that underlies and infuses our Constitution. See Declaration of Independence ('We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness')." he wrote.
In United States v. Fordice (1992), he agreed that Mississippi had not done enough to desegregate its colleges and universities. But he added that increased integration could hurt historically black colleges. "It would be ironic, to say the least, if the institutions that sustained blacks during segregation were themselves destroyed in an effort to combat its vestiges," he wrote.
In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), he voted to uphold an Ohio school voucher plan. "While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society," he wrote. "As Thomas Sowell noted 30 years ago: Most black people have faced too many grim, concrete problems to be romantics."
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Thomas voted to uphold Texas' sodomy laws, claiming that although he felt the laws were "silly", these matters would be best left to the legislature or the public, not the courts.
In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), Thomas was the only justice who sided with the government and the Fourth Circuit's ruling, based on his view of the important security interests at stake and the President's broad war-making powers.
In some cases, Thomas’s commitment to a textualist and originalist philosophy leads him to take a “liberal” position, even writing the occasional opinion that is more "liberal" than any other Justice on the Court.
For example, in United States v. Hubbell, the Court heard a case involving Bill Clinton’s friend Webster Hubbell, who had been indicted for various fraud charges based on his own documents that the government had subpoenaed. Even though the Fifth Amendment provides that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” the Supreme Court has, since 1976, applied the so-called “act-of-production doctrine.” Under this doctrine, a person can invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against the production of documents only where the very act of producing the documents is incriminating in itself. Thomas wrote a separate concurrence, however, examining a wide range of historical materials on the original meaning of the Fifth Amendment. He concluded that the Constitution should protect against the “compelled production not just of incriminating testimony, but of any incriminating evidence.” In other words, the government should not ever be allowed to subpoena a private person's papers and documents in order to build a criminal case against him.
Another example is Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the Court considered whether New Jersey’s hate crime statute was unconstitutional. Under this law, once the jury had decided guilt for the underlying crime, the prosecutor could get an increased sentence merely by proving the “hate” motive to a judge at sentencing (where the standard of proof was merely preponderance of the evidence). The Supreme Court held that this practice was unconstitutional, because the Constitution’s right to trial by jury requires that any factor which increases a defendant’s sentence beyond a statutory maximum has to be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, though, Thomas wrote separately. In his concurrence (which was joined by Scalia), he argued for an even more "liberal" rule – that any facts which might increase a sentence (not just those that increase it beyond the statutory maximum) should have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Another example is United States v. Bajakajian, in which Thomas and the Court's four liberals, wrote the first opinion ever to strike down a federal statute as violating the Eighth Amendment’s “excessive fines” clause. The Court decided that it was an “excessive fine” under the Eighth Amendment for the government to seize $357,144 in cash from an airport traveler on his way to a foreign country. The man was not a drug courier or a money launderer, and his only crime was that he failed to report to the government that he was carrying more than $10,000 out of the country. Again in keeping with his originalist philosophy, Thomas looked to the history and origin of the Excessive Fines Clause, along with 18th-century congressional enactments and 17th-century English cases, in order to conclude that the fine was excessive.
Then, in Indianapolis v. Edmond, the Court struck down a police program that stopped drivers and searched for drugs. The Court, however, took pains to distinguish earlier roadblock cases in which it had upheld police stops to search for drunk drivers and illegal aliens. While Thomas’s conservative colleagues Rehnquist and Scalia dissented on the grounds that the case was controlled by the earlier roadblock cases, Thomas wrote separately and alone to say that while he too thought that the case was controlled by those precedents, he thought those precedents should be overruled. In his words, “I rather doubt that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have considered ‘reasonable’ a program of indiscriminate stops of individuals not suspected of wrongdoing.”
- "[My] approach recognizes the basic principle of a written Constitution. We "the people" adopted a written Constitution precisely because it has a fixed meaning, a meaning that does not change. Otherwise we would have adopted the British approach of an unwritten, evolving constitution. Aside from amendment according to Article V, the Constitution’s meaning cannot be updated, or changed, or altered by the Supreme Court, the Congress, or the President. Of course, even when strictly interpreted as I believe it should be, the Constitution remains a modern, "breathing" document as some like to call it, in the sense that the Court is constantly required to interpret how its provisions apply to the Constitutional questions of modern life. Nevertheless, strict interpretation must never surrender to the understandably attractive impulse towards creative but unwarranted alterations of first principles." — Speech to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, February 2, 2001
- "Though being underestimated has its advantages, the stench of racial inferiority still confounds my olfactory nerves."
- "This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree."
- Foskett, Ken (2004) Judging Thomas : The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas, William Morrow, ISBN 0-060-52721-8
- Thomas, Andrew Peyton (2001) Clarence Thomas: A Biography, Encounter Books, ISBN 1-893-55436-8
- Supreme court official biography (PDF format)
- Supreme Discomfort
- An Outline of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas Controversy
- Out of Scalia's Shadow
- U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia
- Transcripts of Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the Nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court
- A Conversation with Justice Thomas
- Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson (1994) Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-452-27499-0
- Brock, David (1994) The REAL ANITA HILL, Touchstone, ISBN 0-029-04656-4
- LookSmart - Clarence Thomas directory category
- Yahoo - Clarence Thomas directory category
- Angela Onwuachi-Willig, "Just Another Brother on the SCT?: What Justice Clarence Thomas Teaches Us About the Influence of Racial Identity"
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