Clarence Thomas, Outcast? Or President?

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Today, the Supreme Court issued its second 8-1 decision with Clarence Thomas providing as the lone dissenting voice. Last week, it was the court's ruling in a case on the Voting Rights Act. Today, the court ruled that Arizona public school officials violated a 13-year-old girl's constitutional rights when they stripped searched her in a search for prescription strength drugs. The majority ruled that, had the search been for illicit drugs or something else that might have cause more imminent harm, then the search might have been justified, but not in a mad search for something like Tylenol. As it happens, no pills were found on the girl. Officials acted on a tip from another student.

The court fractured further on questions of immunity for the officials. The court ruled that the school district could be sued but not the individuals, including an assistant principal who made the girl sit for two hours, but the big ruling was on the search itself.

So is Thomas coming into his own? For years, he was seen as a reliable echo of Antonin Scalia. Now, Thomas seems to be coming emerging as the court's most reliably conservative member. It's not that Thomas has never broken ranks with conservatives. His impassioned comments upholding an anti cross-burning statute in 2002 attracted widespread attention. "[T]his statute," Thomas wrote, "prohibits only conduct, not expression. And, just as one cannot burn down someone's house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point."

For what it's worth, I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Thomas without the Anita Hill scandal. He surely would have been approved by the Senate by a wider margin, but more importantly, would there have been an effort to enlist him in electoral politics? It seems far fetched now, given what a recluse Thomas has become and how no one has left the bench in more than a generation to pursue another political office. Arthur Goldberg left the Court to become U.N. Ambassador under Lyndon Johnson, and Howard Taft became Chief Justice after being president. It's not inconceivable to me that absent Hill there would have been a Draft Thomas movement on the right. Would he have taken to electoral politics? Nothing suggests that he would have liked the limelight, even absent Anita Hill, but it might have been hard to resist his party's entreaties. We'll never know.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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