JUSTICE

From rags to robes

Clarence Thomas eyes the Supreme Court

ANDREW BILSKI July 15 1991
JUSTICE

From rags to robes

Clarence Thomas eyes the Supreme Court

ANDREW BILSKI July 15 1991

From rags to robes

JUSTICE

Clarence Thomas eyes the Supreme Court

Growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the 1950s and early 1960s, Clarence Thomas faced some daunting obstacles: he was black, poor, abandoned by his parents and a Roman Catholic in the predominantly Protestant South. But his illiterate grandfather, Myers Anderson, who raised the boy from the age of 7, instilled in Thomas a love of learning and a philosophy of self-reli-

ance that would carry him far from the rickety shacks of his youth. Since his graduation from Yale Law School in 1974, Thomas has served as a state assistant attorney general, a corporate lawyer, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, for the past 15 months, a federal Appeals Court judge. Now, at 43, the conservative Republican stands on the verge of his greatest accomplishment. Last week, President George Bush declared Thomas “the best person” to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 83, the first—and only—black to sit on the nation’s highest court. Thomas, clearly overcome with emotion as he stood beside the President at Bush’s vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me., told reporters: “As a child, I could not dare dream that I would ever see the Supreme Court, not to mention be nominated.” Like a hero in a Horatio Alger novel, Thomas

credits his success to hard work, virtue and the belief that any poor boy could grow up to make something of himself. But those same values have made him a staunch opponent of affirmative-action programs. And they have led civil rights leaders to question his commitment to less fortunate blacks. Still, even Thomas’s detractors admit that his nomination may prove to be a master stroke for Bush. Although

Thomas is certain to encounter tough questioning by the Senate judiciary committee in September, many analysts say that his confirmation is almost ensured. Said Democratic political consultant Rory Davenport: “For the Democrats, this must be their worst nightmare. It works to Bush’s advantage among southern whites who side with him in his opposition to racial hiring quotas. On the other hand, here is a black nominee from a poor background who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps.”

Thomas vividly recalls experiencing bigotry during his boyhood in the Deep South. And, according to friends, he was devastated by a racist remark while attending a seminary in Missouri in 1968. On the day that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Thomas overheard a white seminarian say: “That’s what they should do to all the niggers.” Disillu-

sioned, he abandoned his plans for the priesthood and, soon afterwards, as a student at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, embraced the teachings of black-power advocate Malcolm X. But that brush with radicalism was short-lived. As a lawyer and judge, he has scrupulously refused to seek government redress for past racial wrongs. “I firmly insist that the constitution be interpreted in a color-blind fashion,” Thomas has written. “Hence, I emphasize black self-help, as opposed to racial quotas and other race-conscious legal devices that only further and deepen the original problem.”

In fact, it is Thomas’s views on abortion, not affirmative action, that liberal opponents will likely attack at his confirmation hearing. Thomas, who is married and has one son, has not taken a public stand on Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 high court decision recognizing a constitutional right to abortion. However, in a 1987 speech, he praised an essay denouncing abortion rights. And that, coupled with his perceived anti-abortion views as a Catholic, led the National Abortion Rights Action League last week to publicly oppose his confirmation.

For liberal Democrats and much of the nation’s black leadership, the nomination of Thomas is a particularly cruel blow because it results from the resignation of legendary liberal Marshall after 24 years on the bench. During the most recent session of the court, which is dominated by Republican-installed conservatives, Marshall found himself on the losing end of several 5-to-4 decisions. Liberals have expressed concern that Thomas will vote counter to Marshall's famous stands against the death penalty and prayer in schools. And where Marshall fought for mandatory busing of schoolchildren, freedom of speech and increased rights for those accused of crimes, liberals have predicted that Thomas might go the other way. Last week, Democratic party chairman Ronald Brown denounced Thomas’s nomination as “yet another step in the ideological hijacking of the Supreme Court by the radical right wing of the Republican party.”

Still, friends and colleagues contend that Thomas does not resemble the conservative caricature that his opponents are painting. During his 1990 confirmation hearing for the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Thomas himself acknowledged to senators that he has some “problems” with his unorthodox stands on black issues. But he added that in his last conversation with his grandfather, who died in 1988, Myers Anderson told him that he had to choose between popularity and principle. In that respect, at least, Thomas, although philosophically opposed to the liberal views of Marshall, could yet carry on the legacy of his maverick predecessor.

ANDREW BILSKI

WILLIAM LOWTHER