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How Clarence Thomas went from a left-wing Black radical to one of the Supreme Court's most conservative judges

Clarence Thomas
Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
  • On his 2022 financial disclosure form, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that GOP megadonor Harlan Crow had paid for his travel expenses on multiple occasions.

  • Thomas is the longest-serving and oldest justice on the Supreme Court.

  • His vote helped overturn Roe v. Wade, suggesting the same should be done for same-sex marriage and contraception.

Clarence Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, in a small town called Pin Point in Georgia.

Clarence Thomas sitting at a desk holding a pencil circa 1959
Clarence Thomas is seen in a high school yearbook photo, circa 1959.AP

Source: Esquire

As well as English, Thomas spoke Geechee, a Creole language. At St. Pius X High School, a priest told him he didn't speak proper English, and if he didn't want to be considered inferior, he needed to learn to speak properly.

Clarence Thomas is seen sitting at a desk writing in a high school year book photo, circa 1959.
Clarence Thomas is seen sitting at a desk writing in a high school year book photo, circa 1959.AP

In high school, he encountered racism. His peers called him ABC — "America's Blackest Child."

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Sources: Esquire, The Guardian

In 1968, he enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts to study English literature. While he was at university, he met his future wife Kathy Ambush. They got married after he graduated. They had their only child, Jamal Thomas, in 1973.

Kathy Ambush and Clarence Thomas attend an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 1985.
Kathy Ambush and Clarence Thomas attend an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 1985.Guy DeLort/WWD/Penske Media via Getty Images

In college, Thomas also got involved with the Black Panthers. He participated in marches and sit-ins for Black rights. He protested against the Vietnam War and segregation.

When he was asked at his confirmation hearing what he'd majored and minored in, he said, "English literature" and "protest."

But he didn't go along with everything that was happening on campus.

In a speech he made in 1993, he said he was told he wasn't "really Black" if he didn't have an Afro. He said he didn't define himself based on his haircut and that attitude actually caused him to leave his hair uncombed throughout college.

Source: Esquire, New Yorker, New Yorker, ABC

In 1974, after graduating from Yale, he got a job working for then-Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. He worked on tax and environment issues and refused to have anything to do with race.

Clarence Thomas reviewing large stack of mail related to a new employment law poster during his time with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in 1982.
Clarence Thomas reviewing a large stack of mail related to a new employment law poster during his time with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in 1982.Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Sources: Esquire, New York Times

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's administration read a profile in The Washington Post about Thomas and offered him a job. He started in the Department of Education before becoming chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982.

Clarence Thomas stands behind former President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Clarence Thomas stands behind former President Ronald Reagan in 1984.Bettmann/Getty Images

Sources: Esquire, The Nation

During his tenure at the EEOC, he said that instead of working together, Black civil rights leaders "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine."

Clarence Thomas speaks at a press conference in Washigton DC in 1983.
Clarence Thomas speaks at a press conference in Washington DC in 1983.Diana Walker/Getty Images

The EEOC's role was to enforce federal law against different types of discrimination.

Sources: New York Times, Esquire 

In the 1980s, he became more vocal in expressing his legal views. For instance, he regularly criticized the court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, saying it was a sentimental ruling that indicated Black schools were inferior to white schools.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gestures prior to addressing the Federalist Society's national meeting in Washington, Sept. 22, 1995.
Clarence Thomas in 1995.Wilfredo Lee/AP

In a speech he made to Clark College in Atlanta in the 1980s, he said that racial inequality "cannot be solved by the law — even civil-rights laws."

Sources: New York Times, New Yorker

In 1984, Thomas divorced his wife, and three years later, he remarried a woman named Virginia "Ginni" Lamp in 1987.

Clarence Thomas kissing Virginia Lamp in 1991.
Clarence Thomas kissing Virginia Lamp in 1991.Doug Mills/AP

Sources: Esquire, Washington Post

In 1990, he was appointed as a federal judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. This is one of the most important courts in America. It was around then he began to be seen as a future Supreme Court candidate.

Clarence Thomas speaking with then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden.
Clarence Thomas speaking with then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden in September 1991.John Duricka/AP

Sources: Esquire, New York Times

He only spent 15 months on the court and did not get to rule on charged issues like abortion, religion, or affirmative action.

Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy in 2008.
Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy in 2008.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

He ended up writing 20 opinions. In comparison, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote 405 opinions for the same court before she was nominated for the Supreme Court.

Sources: New York Times, New Yorker

In 1991, he was nominated for the Supreme Court. It was one of the most heated confirmation processes in recent history. Media followed him everywhere. Court marshals were appointed to escort him and his wife to and from hearings. He was advised to wear a bulletproof vest.

Clarence Thomas in 1992.
Clarence Thomas in 1992.Larry Downing/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Source: Tampa Bay Times

During the confirmation he told senators — unlike the speeches he'd made in the 1980s — he would "strip down, like a runner, to eliminate agendas, to eliminate ideologies."

Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, responds to questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, Washington DC, October 11, 1991.
Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, responds to questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, Washington, D.C., October 11, 1991.Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

When he was questioned about his opinion on Roe v. Wade, he told senators he did not remember having any discussions about it.

According to The New Yorker, this statement was greeted with skepticism since it had been one of the defining cases of his lifetime.

At another point, he was asked if he wanted to withdraw from the nomination. He answered: "I would rather die than withdraw."

Source: New Yorker

Thomas' nomination was met with support by some in the African American community.

Women holding t-shirts that show their support for Clarence Thomas’ nomination in 1991.
Women holding T-shirts that show their support for Clarence Thomas' nomination in 1991.Charles Tasnadi/AP

Source: The Guardian

But not by all. Famous Black rights activist Rosa Parks wrote to the Supreme Court stating she applauded Thomas' career, but that "his confirmation to the highest court in the land would not represent a step forward in the road to racial progress but a U-turn on that road."

rosa parks
AP

She said his statements about Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade showed he wanted to "push the clock back" on Black rights.

Source: Library of Congress 

It wasn't just his legal reasoning that came under fire. During the confirmation, legal professor Anita Hill, who was one of his former employees, accused Thomas of sexual assault.

anita hill
Rick Wilking/Reuters

Hill testified that Thomas had asked her, "Who has put pubic hair in my Coke?"

"He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts, involved in various sex acts," she said in public testimony. "On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess."

Source: Esquire, New Yorker, NPR

Thomas denied the accusations. According to his memoir, he had an epiphany before he went to testify in his defense and made it about race. He described the accusations as "high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves."

Then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas testifies during his hearing before Senate Judiciary Committee.
Then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas testifies during his hearing before Senate Judiciary Committee.Michael Jenkins/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Source: Esquire

And it worked. By a vote of 52-48, the narrowest margin in more than 100 years, he was appointed to the Supreme Court. He was the second African American to join the court after Thurgood Marshall.

Clarence Thomas, US Supreme Court Associate Justice, in December 1993.
Clarence Thomas, US Supreme Court Associate Justice, in December 1993.Marcy Nighswander/AP

Sources: Esquire, The Nation, NPR

After all of the unwanted media attention, Thomas and his wife moved to a private house on a five-acre section of woods.

Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas looks out the window of a car as he leaves his Alexandria, Virginia home, Oct. 9, 1991.
Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas looks out the window of a car as he leaves his Alexandria, Virginia home, Oct. 9, 1991.Barry Thumma/AP

He was not quick to forgive the media or his political adversaries.

In 1992, he told two law school graduates he intended to remain on the court until 2034 so he would have a 43-year term.

"The liberals made my life miserable for 43 years, and I'm going to make their lives miserable for 43 years," he said.

Sources: New York Times, Tampa Bay Times

His relationship with the media had undeniably soured. According to a 1995 profile in the Washington Post, Thomas would rise at 4 a.m., and walk on the Stairmaster for an hour, but would read no newspaper and watched no televised news — though he listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio.

Rush Limbaugh
US radio talk show host and conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh looks on before introducing US President Donald Trump to deliver remarks at a Make America Great Again rally in Cape Girardeau, MO, on November 5, 2018.JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

He also officiated Limbaugh's wedding.

Source: Washington Post

After the death of his brother in 2000, he told a group in Florida that being on the Supreme Court was meaningless. What mattered, he said, were faith, family, and friends.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife Virginia Thomas in Washington.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits with his wife Virginia Thomas in Washington.Charles Dharapak, File/AP

Source: Tampa Bay Times

But that didn't mean he wasn't working. As the most conservative Supreme Court Justice since the 1930s, Thomas' opinions were often dissenting in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Clarence Thomas in 1991.
Clarence Thomas in 1991.Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

Instead of accepting legal precedents, his legal philosophy was based on originalism, the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted by its intended meaning back in 1787.

According to political scientist Corey Robin, he saw his role as being to "explain to African Americans that there is very little that the government can do for them."

Sources: New York Times, ABC, NPR

For the first decade of his Supreme Court career, Thomas had to deal with the perception that his opinions were guided by fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, who, until Thomas, had been the most conservative Justice on the Supreme Court.

Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas stand on the steps of the Supreme Court as pallbearers carry the casket of Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist into the Supreme Court.
Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in 1995.Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images

"Because I am Black, it is said that Justice Scalia has to do my work for me," he said. "He must somehow have a chip in my brain and controls me that way."

Source: Tampa Bay Times

Thomas did not write many important opinions. Because of his radical views on the law, he was rarely asked by either of the chief justices to write an opinion in a major case.

Supreme Court Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter, Chief Rehnquist, Kennedy, Blackmun, Thomas & O'Connor sitting for portrait.
The Supreme Court justices in 1993.Diana Walker/Getty Images

But his dissenting opinions still had repercussions.

For instance, in a case called Printz v. the United States in 1997, Thomas wrote that the Second Amendment gave an individual the right to bear arms. This was the first time it had been stated in the Supreme Court.

But just over a decade later, it was upheld by Justice Antonin Scalia in Heller v. District of Columbia.

According to Supreme Court advocate Tom Goldstein, Thomas' dissenting opinions were "planting flowers in a garden that he thinks are going to bloom a long time from now."

Not everyone agreed.

In a scathing book review, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy said it was better to look to the Republican Party and Rush Limbaugh's talking points than turn to the Constitution or The Autobiography of Malcolm X to understand Thomas' legal thinking.

Sources: New Yorker, NPR, The Nation

In 2002, Thomas made some of his most well-known comments during a case about cross-burning in Virginia. In this case, the Supreme Court ended up ruling states could make it a crime to burn a cross if the point was to intimidate.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation
Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Thomas spoke movingly of the effect of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.

"This was a reign of terror, and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror," he said. "It was intended to cause fear and to terrorize a population."

Source: New York Times

Thomas is known for his décor with staff at the court. He knows the names of every employee and invites people to have long conversations with him in his office.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughs in his chambers at the Supreme Court
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughs in his chambers at the Supreme Court on June 18, 2002 in Washington, D.C.David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

One of his former clerks in the 1990s, Stephen McAllister, a former US Attorney for the District of Kansas, told Insider in 2022: "I'm not saying I agree with everything that he believes or does, but as a person, he's very genuine, warm, actually humble, and sincere and cares a lot about people actually as individuals."

Sources: The Atlantic, Insider

While Thomas was rarely inclined to speak publicly, his wife Virginia started to speak out politically. She began to have an impact on his career due to her conservative advocacy.

Ginni Thomas against blue background
Virginia “Ginni” Thomas at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on February 23, 2017.Susan Walsh/AP

In 2009, she founded a conservative advocacy group called "Liberty Central."

She was a Tea Party advocate and stood firmly against Obamacare. Later, in 2013, she founded a fringe group called Groundswell.

Sources: USA Today, NPR, Insider

On January 6, 2020, Ginni Thomas attended the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the mob of Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol.

Then-US President Donald Trump greets the crowd at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Then-US President Donald Trump greets the crowd at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

She sent text messages to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging him to overturn the 2020 election.

After her support of Trump and her promotion of conspiracy theories became public, there were calls for Clarence Thomas to be removed from the Supreme Court, including a petition with more than one million signatures.

But Thomas did not resign.

He was criticized for not recusing himself from certain cases where there was a potential for bias.

For instance, he voted on cases relating to the election as well as writing a lone dissenting opinion about whether or not Trump White House documents could be released to the January 6 Committee.

Sources: Esquire, Move On, The Conversation, CNN, Insider

Instead of resigning, Thomas became more powerful. After 30 years of being an outlier on the Supreme Court, he was now part of the majority thanks to former President Donald Trump's judicial appointments.

Former President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020.

Thomas was joined by three conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — while Trump nominated 11 of Thomas' former clerks as judges and four of those made it onto the Court of Appeals.

Source: New Yorker

In June of 2022, Thomas helped overturn Roe v. Wade, which protected abortion as a fundamental right, a case he had been openly against for more than 30 years.

Clarence Thomas liar sign
Protestors filled the streets after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

In that opinion, he wrote that the court should overturn cases that established rights for same-sex marriage, same-sex relations, and contraception based on the same rationale.

Source: Esquire, New York Times

On April 6, a bombshell report by ProPublica found that Thomas had been accepting lavish trips paid for by GOP megadonor Harlan Crow for over 20 years, prompting critics to call for an ethics investigation.

Harlan Crow with his hands folded wearing a name tag
Harlan Crow attends a book release reception at the The George W. Bush Institute on July 17, 2012, in Dallas, Texas.LM Otero, File/AP

The billionaire Republican donor fronted the bill for luxury cruises, private jet flights, and even stays at his private resort for the Supreme Court justice.

Despite the trips that Thomas accepted costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the nature of which is unprecedented in the modern history of the Supreme Court, the trips did not appear anywhere in Thomas' financial disclosures, according to the report.

However, after the ProPublica published their reports, Thomas' 2022 financial disclosure form included Crow's contributions. The disclosure, which was released on August 31, 2023, say that the GOP megadonor paid for Thomas' travel expenses on at least three occasions last year.

Thomas, for his part, has defended his relationship with Crow. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News from April 2023, Thomas said, "You know, it's possible that people are just really friends."

Source: ProPublica

Read the original article on Business Insider