On My Mind: Justice Clarence Thomas

Please allow me just a few more thoughts on the infamous Election of 2000.

Reflecting on the presidential campaign preceding the vote, you may remember how vociferously Gore supporters emphasized that the next president could name as many as three new Supreme Court Justices. Certainly, at least two.

Democratic campaign activists warned that if George W. Bush became president he would most likely appoint justices who would make the high court more conservative than it is now.

They predicted that a second Bush court would overturn Roe v. Wade and affirmative action laws. Bush appointees, they argued, would no doubt rule in favor of rights for whites, males, and the wealthy, and against the rights of blacks and browns, females, and the poor.

If anybody needed a wake-up call on how important the “Supremes” are it came loudly and clearly last Tuesday night.

That’s when we heard the historic news that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against Gore in the Florida vote recount case, in effect guaranteeing that Bush the 43rd Presidency of the United States. The future of the Court is now in his hands.

Will he follow in his father’s footsteps? President Bush picked former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Clarence Thomas to fill the enormous shoes left on the high court by the death of Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of history’s greatest civil rights lawyers and jurists.

Thomas and Florida Voters

At the time, President Bush said Thomas, with his remarkably limited experience, was the most qualified judge in the nation for the job. Others thought Thomas was the beneficiary of the biggest example of unmerited affirmative action ever undertaken.

In 1998, former U.S. Appeals Court Judge Leon Higginbotham, Jr., an outstanding black jurist — now deceased — said Justice Thomas, after eight years on the Supreme Court, “has done more to turn back the clock of racial progress than has perhaps any other African-American public official in the history of this country.”

Florida African-Americans raised one of the major issues in the controversial vote there. They charged they had been disenfranchised, that casting votes was made particularly difficult for them, and that their ballots were undercounted. Some charged, their votes were “stolen.”

In the Tuesday ruling, which brought the long national nightmare to an end, I was anxious to see which justices voted how. Sure enough, the split was along partisan lines. Republican appointees went with Bush, Democratic ones with Gore.

This was an issue about voting rights. Yet, Justice Thomas voted with the conservative majority. His vote could have changed history. But it was not to be. He is firmly entrenched on the Court’s right. In fact, during this term, of 45 cases decided, Thomas voted 90 percent of the time with his arch-conservative colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia.

Simpson Disagrees With Thomas

How could Justice Thomas vote against black voting rights? This is a man who has experienced much of the worst of growing up black and poor in America.

Born in Pin Point, Ga., he lived in a one-room shack with no plumbing. His father abandoned his family when he was only 2 years old. At seven his life began to change for the better when he was sent to live with his grandparents in Savannah.

They sent him to black Catholic and then all-white Catholic schools, where he suffered racial slurs and discrimination while still receiving a good education.

He was an excellent student at Holy Cross and received his law degree from Yale. He attracted the attention of the Republican right wing when he criticized his only sister for being on welfare. (She wasn’t lucky enough to be sent to grandmother’s house like her brother.)

Under the Reagan Administration, Thomas served as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and after only a year on that bench Bush and the U.S. Senate gave him a life-time appointment to the highest court in the land. This, in spite of the Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal.

Because he has consistently voted against human rights and civil rights, a New York Times editorial called him the “cruelest” justice on the court. In five major cases involving civil rights and liberties, he voted against minorities every time, including rulings against job discrimination and voting rights. He’s only 52 years old and could conceivably spend another 30 years on the Supreme Court.

If, during his tenure, President-elect Bush ends up making a couple of more appointments like Justice Thomas to the Supreme Court, I have heard many women and minorities say, “God help us.”