Clarence Thomas turned 72 last week after marking almost 29 years on the US Supreme Court, making him the senior justice. As one of the high court's most controversial nominees, he may now be its most influential conservative.
Those who know him best want people to see how kind and loving this man of faith is, despite how he's been portrayed in much of the mainstream media.
Journalists started lashing at him big time when President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the court in 1991. And his confirmation became global news and gossip when at his confirmation hearing, Thomas' former employee Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment.
He fought back with history-making fury, telling the senators who brought Hill and her accusations before a watching world, "As a black American, as far as I'm concerned it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks."
Former Thomas law clerk Carrie Severino pointed out after that hearing, the media attacking this prominent conservative black American, some of it with a racist edge, continued.
"In fact, it became in many ways even more vicious," Severino noted. "There's this montage of really racist attacks on him: having him shining Justice Scalia's shoes, calling him a lawn jockey and Uncle Tom."
His Deep Faith Helped Him Through
Severino, former Thomas law clerk Erik Jaffe and author Ralph Rossum shared their memories and thoughts about the justice in a Committee for Justice webinar.
Rossum studied the justice intensely preparing his book Understanding Clarence Thomas: The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Restoration. Rossum said of those days around Hill coming forward, "I think Thomas' deep faith saw him through this period."
"Fellow parishioners would come over and they would have prayer sessions, to help support Thomas during that time," he continued. "His faith and his wife's faith I think ensured that he came through this with less permanent damage than would probably be the case for most of us."
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Some assume, though, that the experience probably left Thomas a bitter, unhappy justice. Former Thomas clerk Erik Jaffe said, "You see these photos of him scowling, looking down, and 'Oh my God, this evil person from the Right who's going to take away your life!'"
But those who meet this Christian justice featured in the recent documentary "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words" find out Thomas is a different person than he has been previously portrayed.
"How happy and gregarious and caring a person he is," said Jaffe. "Every person I've ever introduced to him -- and many of them of very different political persuasions -- have come away still disagreeing with him, but incapable of demonizing him the way you often see in the press."
He Knows & Befriends Every Elevator Operator, Cop, Clerk & Janitor at the Court
When Severino clerked for him, she saw just how caring Thomas is on a daily basis.
"He would walk around the court, knowing everyone's name from the elevator operators to the marshals to the other justices' clerks to the janitor," Severino recalled. "He would know what their sports team was. He'd say 'Hey, I heard your mom's in the hospital. How's she doing?' He's really just such a genuine person and caring about other individuals."
Jaffe added, "He knew every policeman in the building. He knew the folks who delivered the mail. He took great pleasure in that."
He's Far From Just Antonin Scalia, Junior
His detractors originally considered Thomas just a shadow of conservative giant Antonin Scalia.
"The not very smart portion of this duo," Severino said. She believes these critics thought, "That he was more or less just a proxy vote for Justice Scalia. And there was this idea that he was only chosen because of his race and that he really wasn't up to snuff."
But he's become famous for total dedication to the original meaning of the words in the US Constitution.
In fact, Jaffe said, "Scalia characterized him as 'a bloodthirsty originalist.'"
In doing his research for his book, Rossum saw, again and again, this fierce dedication to figure out the Founders' original intent.
"What was the intention of those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia?" Rossum said Thomas is always asking. "What were the ends that they were attempting to achieve, what were the evils they were attempting to avert?"
Digging Through the Rubble, Scraping Off the Layers
"This slow process of digging through the rubble of the Constitution to find the bones of it," Jaffe called that originalist hunt. "And each time he gets into a new area, he has clerks dig or he digs or they all dig."
"If you have a finely-crafted piece of furniture, and if you put layer of paint after layer of paint on it, all the nuance and detail is lost. And what Thomas wants to do is scrape off all those built-up layers, all that precedent, where you get further and further away from the actual words of the Constitution," Rossum said. "He wants to scrape that away and get back to bare wood, to the original, general meaning of the Constitution.
Thomas has faced so much bad press from the liberal media, he no longer lets them influence him.
"So you don't have to worry about 'Okay, what is the New York Times going to write about my latest dissent?;' 'what are they going to say about my next opinion?' They're going to hate you because they've already said they're going to hate you. So you're not writing for them anymore," Severino suggested.
His Star is Rising
Severino opined it may take years before, "People realize, 'okay, this truly was a visionary who went back to basics and was willing to stick by his principles regardless."
She did admit, though, his strong, consistent originalist stand is making him even more influential as the years go by. And it's making him increasingly popular among young lawyers-to-be and many others.
"It's abundantly clear – very obvious – that he really is the intellectual leader and anchor of the conservative – not just the conservative Supreme Court, but I really think, an inspiration for the whole next generation," Severino observed. "When I speak to law students, I'm impressed by how many -- even without knowing obviously that I'm a fan of Thomas -- will come and say 'Justice Thomas is my role model.' So move over, Scalia. Thomas is definitely gaining some popularity among the next generation of lawyers."
Rossum mentioned, "The Hill magazine had an article entitled 'Is it Now Clarence Thomas' Court?'"
One left-leaning writer in ThinkProgress labeled Thomas "the most important legal thinker in America."
"He was acknowledging basically that Justice Thomas is the intellectual heavyweight on that side of the court," said Severino.
Warmth & Wisdom
His former clerks see not just his love of the Constitution, but also his warmth and wisdom when dealing with everyone around him. Like looking past the young Jaffe's outer hippie appearance to his inner mind.
"When I interviewed with him, I had hair down past my shoulders. He cared about the intellectual part. Not the window-dressing," Jaffe reminisced.
Severino came to Thomas pregnant and worried that would anger him and he wouldn't take her on as a clerk. Then she recalled he said to her, "We're not here to make big bucks or come up with highfalutin' arguments. We're here to interpret the Constitution, and that's here so you can live a life with your family in peace and in safety, and I don't want to do anything that would undermine that. So you tell me what year would be best for you to clerk for your family, and I can hire you whatever year I want."
She loved the way he cared for his law clerks and admonished them to care for each other.
She said, "He's seen firsthand how ugly life in D.C. can be, how everyone is absolutely willing to throw you under the bus if it helps them politically. And he wants everyone to have each other's back, by illustrating that to us: how to stick up for each other."
And he's funny. His humor showed at a lunch after Scalia blasted him in a dissent.
Rossum recalled, "Scalia wrote a fiery dissent, calling Thomas' opinion 'a liberty-destroying cocktail of arguments.'"
Then Rossum said at lunch, "Scalia was looking at the menu and thinking 'what drink should I have?' And Thomas suggested 'how about a liberty-destroying cocktail?'"
Severino shared, "Justice Thomas on the bench because of the seniority of the seating sits next to Justice Breyer. And even though they don't agree with each other ideologically on a lot of issues, they'd often have a fun time passing notes back and forth. And Justice Breyer is known for asking these long, involved hypotheticals in his questions. Justice Thomas is of course known for not asking questions. But sometimes he would be passing notes, suggesting questions to Justice Breyer, trying to get him to take the bait. So I thought that was just kind of a fun, playful relationship."
Why He's Quiet During Court Hearings
About Thomas' famous quietness during hearings, Severino laughed and said, "I still get people writing nasty things about how 'he doesn't ask questions because he's not smart enough to think of any.'"
Jaffe explained it's certainly not that Thomas isn't smart enough, but that he doesn't want to join in with all the unpleasant rapid-fire questioning and interrupting done by his fellow justices.
Jaffe suggested Thomas believes, "It's sort of a scrum of justices batting questions off the head of a lawyer."
So he'll likely keep up his silence during most future hearings.
Do Supreme Court observers think Thomas might retire in the near future? Not Rossum or Severino.
"I can't imagine him stepping down anytime soon," Rossum said. "He's in that leadership role right now, and he seems to have fun."
Severino pointed out, "I think Justice Thomas has publicly stated his desire to stay on the court for at least as long as he'd been off the court. So he was 43 when he joined the court. So that gives us to the 2030s or so before he'll consider stepping down."