Going by books, Thomas is the most studied justice


Clarence Thomas may not be a great Supreme Court justice, but he is the most interesting one of his day to publishers. And he may be a great justice. Two new biographies of him were published last month. Two earlier ones of less than stellar quality came out in 1993 and early this year. A favorable scholarly study of his first five years on the court came out in 1999 (First Principles by Scott Gerber). An unfavorable scholarly study came out last year (The Real Clarence Thomas by Christopher E. Smith and Joyce A. Baugh).

There have been at least six books about his confirmation hearings that have some or a great deal of biographical detail. And that's not counting at least two collections of essays dealing with the issues raised by his hearings. One was edited by Anita Hill (herself the subject of a biography which included page after page about Thomas' life), the other by novelist Toni Morrison.

And the hits just keep on coming. Next year New York University Press will re-publish First Principles, with an afterword dealing with the justice's second five years on the court. NYU will also publish Original Sin by Samuel Marcosson, a critical look at Thomas' jurisprudence. I would not be surprised if a sympathetic Thomas series with much new material by Ken Foskett in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last spring became a book.

According to the Supreme Court library, there have been more books about Thomas in his decade on the court than about all the other eight sitting justices combined in their cumulative 104 years.

The better of the two new biographies is Clarence Thomas by Andrew Peyton Thomas. (Encounter Books, 681 pages, $29.95). The author, no kin to the justice, is a Harvard Law School graduate and frequent contributor to such conservative publications as Weekly Standard and National Review.

It is a thorough study of the life and times of Thomas from segregated poverty in rural Georgia, then in a Savannah ghetto, to success and stress in school, politics and high office in Boston, New Haven, Missouri and Washington. There is a look back at his ancestors and their times from plantation slavery to Jim Crow. The author is a believer in Thomas, and it shows. But the book is no whitewash. For example, the author says the justice has "a disingenuousness that sometimes seeped into dishonesty."

Even those put off by the book's favorable take will still be indebted to the author's considerable and well-documented interviewing and other research.

The other new biography is Silent Justice, by Johns Greenya (Barricade Press, 313 pages, $24.95). It is a workmanlike summary, diminished by the lack of documentation and pertinent new material.

I believe Thomas has been so popular a subject because his life story is so compelling and untypical. Here is a black man whose mother made her living picking crab meat for 5 cents a pound. He grows up in a Savannah ghetto, living with his grandfather, almost literally in the shadow of an "Impeach Earl Warren" billboard, at the high tide of Southern last-stand defense of white supremacy. He overcomes those handicaps to rise to the Supreme Court. In an era in which African-Americans are about 9-1 Democratic and liberal, he is Republican -- and so conservative that a couple of the books referred to above suggest doing to him what that billboard advocated for Chief Justice Warren.

Critics look at Thomas' life and character and say he is a perjurer, who had to testify falsely about his personal and philosophical past in order to avoid a Senate rejection of his nomination. He did sexually harass Anita Hill despite his denial, and he had discussed the Supreme Court's abortion decisions though he swore otherwise. They say he has no judicial philosophy, just "me-toos" the court's leading conservative, Antonin Scalia. Or they say his "original intent" approach to the Constitution ignores over two centuries of American history and jurisprudence, and, more damning, is inconsistent: he invokes the Founding Fathers when it suits his purpose, ignores them in order to reach a desired outcome.

Supporters say Hill was the liar, and Thomas' misleading testimony before the Judiciary Committee was minor and justified ("Clintonian," one puts it) in light of the "lynch" atmosphere he perceived. As for his jurisprudence, he and Scalia vote together less often than liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter do, Scott Gerber points out, and no one accuses either of "me-tooism."

Andrew Peyton Thomas looked at Gerber's statistics and concluded that after just a few years on the court, Thomas was his own man. "By 1995," he writes, "Thomas had become the most faithful originalist on the court, and, ipso facto, the most conservative. [He] consistently planted his flag to the right of Scalia."

Critics are especially hard on Thomas for his votes against civil rights laws and regulations that give minorities special status in voting, education, employment. They say he is a hypocrite, an ingrate. After all, he climbed the American ladder on affirmative action rungs.

His supporters say that that experience pained him; he saw first-hand whites patronizing blacks, suggesting they were inferior, which was wrong, demeaning and harmful. That's why he insists in his opinions that rights belong to individuals not groups, as the Declaration of Independence makes unambiguously clear.

I think he may just be colorblind. His high school nickname was "Cooz," because his favorite sports figure was Bob Cousey, the white basketball player. I learned that after the fact from an old friend on the Savannah Morning News. I was working there when Thomas came to live with his grandfather. I was a police reporter and occasionally rode through that black neighborhood with cops who showed little respect for the residents or their rights. Nobody's journey from childhood to Supreme Court justice has been more improbable.

Most biographies pay relatively little attention to Thomas' jurisprudence. Even Andrew Peyton Thomas' exhaustive work devotes less than a fourth of the text to his court decade.

Yet increasingly when attention is paid, his reputation rises, and not just on the right. Not too long ago I heard a liberal journalist who covers the court say in a Q. and A. after a speech that Thomas is a much better jurist than Thurgood Marshall. And Nat Hentoff, a champion of liberal ideas, said recently, approvingly, "he is growing harder to stereotype." He puts him in the company of two liberal predecessors, Justices William O. Douglas and William Brennan, in his defense of freedom of speech.

If Thomas' reputation rises half as much in the next 20 or 30 years as it has in the past 10, he will surely be regarded as a great justice.

Theo Lippman Jr. is the biographer of several political figures, including Edward Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. An editorial writer for The Sun from 1965 to 1995, he wrote the paper's Supreme Court editorials for most of that period.

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