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Thomas' Trials and Triumph


Thomas' Trials and Triumph

Walter Olson December 19, 2004
Legal ReformOther



MORROW, 339 PAGES, $24.95

SO much for comity between the different branches of government. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" two weeks ago, new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid coolly insulted Justice Clarence Thomas, calling the 56-year-old African-American jurist "an embarrassment to the Supreme Court" whose "opinions are poorly written."

Who knew Reid, a hitherto little-known Nevada Democrat whose major backers have been casinos and trial lawyers, took such an interest in judges' writing skills?

For years, Thomas has served as a punching bag for lazy commentators. In the 1991 fight over his nomination, liberal interest groups portrayed him as a lecherous incompetent. When he was confirmed anyway, they began banging away on his supposed overdependence on his colleague Antonin Scalia.

Among those who follow the court's work closely, most of these themes are at best passé. Over 13 years, Thomas has laid out a body of conservative-to-libertarian judicial thinking clearly distinct from Scalia's. And many court-watchers who disagree passionately with the content of Thomas' views acknowledge that there's nothing subpar about his written opinions.

Which still leaves the question of character, explored at length in Ken Foskett's new biography, "Judging Thomas."

By now the outlines of Thomas' remarkable life story are well-known: his poor upbringing in Savannah, raised by a super-strict grandfather who drilled him in hard work and obedience; his radical phase at Holy Cross, where he affected Army fatigues "and a black beret festooned with black power buttons"; his arrival at a Yale Law School then supremely confident of its mission to use the law to remake American society; his rejection of that mission and emergence as a conservative strongly opposed to counting by race as a form of governance, and at length his recruitment (via John Danforth's Missouri attorney general office) by a Bush 41 administration that kept tapping him for jobs very different from those for which he would have volunteered, culminating in a seat on the nation's highest court.

At every stage, there were lacerating snubs: from lighter-skinned blacks and snooty boarding-school students amused by his uneducated accent, from the civil-rights establishment, from People for the American Way mudslingers and New Yorker editors.

Where the criticism struck him as fair, Thomas had the strength to take it to heart: Thus, the toughie Yale Law property expert who gave him his worst grade became his favorite professor. After the confirmation ordeal, on the other hand, Thomas spent a couple of years recovering from embitterment, and even now Foskett describes him as "tightly wound," though warmly regarded by his staff.

An investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Foskett writes in a relaxed and readable style, and though a few expressions suggest that he does not necessarily agree with Thomas' jurisprudence, the resulting portrait is generally a favorable one.

Thomas' own memoirs are supposedly in the works. In the meantime, this book dramatically depicts the power of will over circumstance.