Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

After George H.W. Bush was elected, Thomas began thinking of what post he would like to assume in the new administration and told a member of the transition team, Michael Uhlmann, he was interested in serving as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He also argued it was important for Bush to "place blacks in nontraditional positions."

Uhlmann instead asked Thomas if he were interesting in becoming a federal judge, but Thomas was unsure.

"That's a job for old people," Thomas wrote that he replied. "I can't see myself spending the rest of my life as a judge."

A friend, federal appeals court Judge Laurence Silberman told him "it's not like slavery, Clarence. You can always leave if you don't like it." And the next summer, in June 1989, President Bush announced he would nominate Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

In his meetings with white Democratic staffers in the Senate, Thomas wrote, he was met with ill-concealed hostility." He says he was "struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights." But his confirmation hearing to the federal appeals court would prove uneventful, and he got the support of a number of influential African Americans, including William Coleman, co-author of the NAACP's Brown v. Board of Education brief.

Thomas wrote in some detail about how much he enjoyed his time on the D.C. Circuit and of the warm relationships he developed with his colleagues, including then-federal appeals court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He also wrote about a piece of advice Silberman gave him when he first joined that court.

Silberman advised Thomas to ask himself: "What is my role in this case — as a judge?" It eventually became central to his approach to judging.

Thomas had been on the appeals court mere months when Justice William Brennan stepped down, and rumors circulated that Thomas was on the short list to replace him. Bush actually wanted to nominate Thomas for that seat. He was worried about the "optics" of nominating him to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, if he were to retire, because he didn't want Thomas to be perceived as a quota pick.

But Bush's advisers, including White House Counsel Boyden Gray, believed it was too soon for Thomas, so Bush tapped another new appeals court appointee, David Souter of New Hampshire. Souter had spent seven years on the New Hampshire Supreme Court and had worked in state government before that. But he had yet to write a federal court opinion or grapple with hard federal constitutional law questions — as the Bush Administration would realize soon enough when the inexperienced Souter, once on the Court, proved to be less conservative than they had ever expected.

The next year, Marshall — a civil rights icon — announced his retirement. Thomas heard he was the leading candidate and wrote that he "felt sick" at the prospect of being a Supreme Court nominee. He worried about spending the rest of his life as a judge, and he worried about the battle it would take to get him confirmed because of his outspoken views.

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