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Supreme Court Justices

Clarence Thomas (1948- )

Clarence Thomas was born in Savannah, Georgia, on June 23, 1948. Thomas's father abandoned his family when Clarence was young. Until age seven, Clarence was raised by his mother, Leola Williams. When she remarried, Thomas and his brother were sent to Pin Point, Georgia, and raised by his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson. Clarence Thomas was raised as a Roman Catholic, and his grandfather urged him to become a priest. Thomas spent time at seminaries during high school and immediately thereafter.

Thomas attended the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts at a time when colleges and universities in the north were actively recruiting black students. President Lyndon Baines Johnson's quest for a "Great Society" included taking affirmative actions to integrate all of American society. At Holy Cross, Thomas was considered a radical and black power devotee. He was a Black Panther supporter (not a member), and helped create the Black Student Union at Holy Cross. After graduating with honors from Holy Cross in 1971, Thomas matriculated at Yale Law School, which was also actively recruiting blacks to its law school. Thomas, who was married by then, was a loner at law school.

Then Missouri Attorney General John Danforth (later a Senator from Missouri) recruited Thomas as a law student, and Thomas joined the Missouri Attorney General's office upon graduation from Yale. After nearly three years in that office, Thomas left for Monsanto Corporation, where he spent two years. Danforth had won election to the Senate in the 1976 elections, and asked Thomas to work as his legislative aide in Washington. After the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, Thomas joined the Department of Education as an assistant secretary in charge of civil rights issues. Very shortly thereafter, Thomas became the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he remained until 1990, when President George Bush nominated him to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  

In 1991, after the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, President George Bush made the 43-year old Thomas his second appointment to the Court. There was an expectation and some political pressure suggesting that Marshall, the first African-American (Marshall preferred the term Negro) Supreme Court Justice, would be replaced by another African-American, and that turned out to be the case. Thomas's appointment was met with trepidation by those who admired Marshall, for Thomas and Marshall hold very different jurisprudential views, and very different views concerning the Court's role in society.  Although Thomas was undeniably a political conservative, there was nothing immediately available to opponents of Thomas to use to urge the Senate to reject his nomination. For example, when questioned about Roe v. Wade (1973), decided when he was in law school, Thomas stated that he had not formed an opinion of the case. 

After Thomas testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a former assistant of Thomas's in the EEOC, Anita Hill, claimed he had sexually harassed her a number of years earlier. Thomas took the extraordinary step of testifying again before the Committee, denied sexually harassing Hill and declared he was the subject of a "high-tech lynching." The debate about the Thomas nomination polarized both Washington and much of the country. The entire Senate voted on Thomas's nomination, and he was confirmed by a vote of 52-48. 

During oral argument, Thomas rarely speaks, although he did so in a cross-burning case argued in Fall 2002. His opinions are textualist and originalist. For example, Thomas wrote separately in United States v. Lopez (1995), which held an act of Congress beyond the commerce clause power (the first time the Court had so held in nearly six decades), urging the Court return its commerce clause jurisprudence to "the original understanding of the Commerce Clause." In Thomas's view, the Court's "substantial effects" test in commerce clause cases was not grounded in the text or the original understanding of "commerce," and thus should be discarded. More than any other current Justice, including Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas is willing to overturn precedent if doing so will result in a more faithful (or true) interpretation of the original meaning of the constitutional phrase at issue.

Thomas married Kate Ambush in 1971. They are the parents of one child. They divorced in 1984. He married Virginia Lamp in 1987.

Further reading: Jane Mayer & Jill Abramson, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (1994); Scott D. Gerber, First Principles: The Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas (1999); Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Conflict (2007).