Deconstructing Clarence Thomas

The first thing to know about Clarence Thomas is that everybody at the Supreme Court loves him. Surprisingly, given his uncompromising public persona and his near-total silence during oral arguments, Thomas cultivates a jovial presence in the building’s austere marble hallways. Unlike most of his colleagues, he learns everyone’s name, from the janitors to each justice’s law clerks. He makes fast friends at work, at ball games, and at car races, and invites people to his chambers, where the conversations last for hours. Thomas’s booming laugh fills the corridors. He passes silly notes on the bench. As the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wrote in 2007, with his “effusive good nature,” Thomas is “universally adored.”

This buoyancy marks a man whose career as a judge is a study in brutalism. Thomas is by far the most conservative justice on a very conservative Court. He advances a reactionary legal philosophy that would take America back to the 1930s. That won’t happen: Unwilling to compromise and often unable to attract the vote of a single colleague, Thomas frequently writes only for himself. He also endured the most searing confirmation battle of any modern American public servant, an ordeal that put race, sex, and power in the national spotlight. By all accounts, including his own, the experience nearly destroyed him—not to mention what it did to Anita Hill, who accused him of sexual harassment. Thomas has since nursed a long list of grievances, vowing to “outlive” his critics and writing in his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, about a host of antagonists: “posturing zealots,” “sanctimonious whites,” and—of Hill—“my most traitorous adversary.”

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