Justice Clarence Thomas and the Wounds That Don't Heal

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The Supreme Court judge has offended the sensibilities of civil rights leaders for decades

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Reuters/Larry Downing


One day many decades from now, long after we're all gone, some bright legal historian will write the definitive biography of United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It will undoubtedly include at least a chapter or two on the justice's eternally roiling relationship with his fellow black professionals, especially black judges and lawyers. And it will probably cite an ongoing kerfuffle in Georgia as an example of what the justice faced, and why, even 20 years after contentiously ascending to the High Court.

As well told by veteran Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro, officials in Augusta, Georgia, are under fire from some local judges and lawyers for inviting Justice Thomas to speak at the dedication of a new courthouse to be named in honor of the memory of John Ruffin Jr. Ruffin was a civil rights attorney who later -- in 1994! -- became the first black member of the Georgia Court of Appeals. He died last year. The new courthouse is scheduled to open May 18th. And Justice Thomas is on his way. (As Mauro pointed out, here's good local coverage from the Augusta Chronicle).

Of the criticism the justice's visit has engendered locally, Mauro wrote:

"It's not [Thomas'] fault, but his judicial philosophy is the antonym of what Judge Ruffin's was and what it is in the vast majority of the minority community," Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins was quoted as saying in The Augusta Chronicle. The paper also quoted a close friend of Ruffin as saying, "I know of no way we could dishonor John Ruffin more than to have Clarence Thomas speak for this occasion."

Some of those folks evidently also are angry because they were not consulted before Thomas was given the invitation. But the officials who made that decision, last fall, say they figured it was a no-brainer. Justice Thomas is from Georgia and also the circuit justice for the 11th Circuit, which covers Georgia. And because courthouse ceremonies often involve herds of dutiful lawyers and solemn judges, local officials probably figured, too, that the justice would get a more polite reception than he did twice before when he appeared at the University of Georgia.

The wounds Clarence Thomas opened up 20 years ago when he got the job have never healed. His personality and his jurisprudence do not allow for it.

But it turns out that even the specter of Thomas raises the same hackles with some judges and lawyers as he does with some students and professors. It would be easy to attribute such disdain to the old arguments -- he benefited from affirmative action and then turned his back on it, etc.-- but I think that would be a mistake. Or at least a working theory that needs some serious updating. There are many other, more contemporary reasons-- some of law, some of politics -- why black jurists (and many white ones) would reasonably and justifiably list Justice Thomas far down their list of most admirable justices.

Let's start with the most recent trouble spot -- the justice's wife, Virginia Thomas, and her ongoing Tea Party advocacy. Never mind the issue of the justice's perceived conflict of interest to hear the looming court battle over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Within the past month, the Tea Party has been linked to an email which depicted President Obama and his family as primates. But if Virginia Thomas has used her bully pulpit to publicly decry such conduct I was unable to find it via Google. Do you think that such an episode might impact the way some people view Justice Thomas today?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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