Law: January 2007 Archives

Article on Justice Thomas

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Jan Crawford Greenburg has a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal called The Truth About Clarence Thomas [hat tip: SCOTUSblog]. It recounts some of what she learned about his first term or two on the Supreme Court from the records of other justices, especially Justice Harry Blackmun. I think this pretty much destroys the last vestiges of several of the common myths about Justice Thomas, e.g. "Justice Thomas is stupid", "Justice Thomas is simply Justice Scalia's lackey" (some would even call him his slave), "Justice Thomas doesn't have any original thoughts", "Justice Thomas' opinions aren't intelligent or well-written", "Justice Thomas isn't smart enough to ask questions during oral arguments", and so on. I've long wondered how much of this is buried racism that isn't allowed to come out with political liberals but is tolerated when it comes to conservatives, but I'm sure that even if it is it's not the sort of racism the person is aware of. I've blogged about some of these issues before here, here, and a series I started here but regrettably haven't gotten around to finishing yet. [Update: See also here.]

It turns out that, according to Justice Blackmun's notes, the first year with Justice Thomas on the court changed things drastically. He'd vote in conference as a lone dissenter, but then when the other justices saw his opinions several of them would change their vote and sign on to his dissent. This is especially true of Justice Scalia, which means it's more true that he was Justice Thomas' lapdog than the reverse, although neither is really true, and a more accurate description would just be that Thomas had just convinced Scalia with arguments that Scalia's original vote was wrong.

Oh, and as for oral arguments, apparently he's got a philosophical conviction against asking questions during oral arguments. He thinks it's the lawyer's job to present the case without much interruption. He considers it a violation of his oath to do otherwise. I simply thought he was the sort of person who takes a while to digest things over the long term but not quickly on his feet, something true of some of the best philosophers I know. But he's actually deliberately holding back for principled reasons.

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