Clarence Thomas' principles showcase how he approaches big matters of constitutional law

·4 min read

As the Supreme Court’s term draws to a close, we all expect some significant decision on abortion and other hot-button issues. As the leader of the originalist wing of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas has come under intense scrutiny and political pressure.

We may offer some insight into the question of what Thomas might do, though he is famously his own man, so no one knows for sure. One of us interviewed Justice Thomas for more than 25 hours, and one of us is a close friend of the justice for more than 30 years and who worked on the Thomas confirmation in 1991. Together, we have edited a new book, based on those long interviews and which also formed the basis of a documentary, both are called "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words."

With Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion, the attention is on overturning Roe v. Wade, just as it was three decades ago in Thomas’ nomination. To the left, it was always all about Roe. As Thomas told us, “You really didn’t matter and your life didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wanted, and what they wanted was this particular issue. And regardless of what I had done with my life, where I had been, where I had lived, it was all cancelled out.”

Clarence Thomas is clear and consistent

To Thomas, as a justice, the issue isn’t the morality of abortion but what the Constitution says. “You have to really be careful not to supplant what is there, what was rightfully done, with your own views," he said, talking about his view of interpreting the law. So, in the end, “a bad policy can be constitutional. A good policy can be unconstitutional.”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Whether or not there is a right to abortion in the Constitution, the left says it is now settled law so it should not be touched according to the doctrine of stare decisis, giving weight to precedents. The left applies that principle selectively, willing to overturn precedent in the case of marriage laws to make room for same-sex marriage, or any other progressive cause. 

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Thomas is clear and consistent, addressing the idea that stare decisis settles the case: “Well, then why are we here? Are we supposed to stop thinking?”

The latest tactic against Thomas, who turns 74 on Thursday, is to force him to recuse himself from some cases and in general to paint him as an unthinking ideologue by attacking the political activism of his wife, Ginni. Political pressure only makes Justice Thomas more staunch.

Attacks on him, often racist in tone, have been relentless since he worked in the Reagan administration, reaching a peak during his confirmation. In response, Thomas said to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “I will not be scared. I don't like bullies. I have never run from bullies. I never cry uncle and I am not going to cry uncle today.”

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A lot of the attacks on Thomas are meant to discredit him, knowing he is unlikely to change his mind. Underlying this effort is the implication that all his talk about originalism and finding the public meaning of laws, while not imposing his own views, is just a cover for his “radical right wing” ideology. But this is to profoundly misread his entire life story. 

Reverence for the principle 'all men are created equal'

We call our book and documentary “Created Equal” due to Thomas’ profound belief in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and their realization in the Constitution. Growing up in dire poverty in the segregated South, Thomas learned reverence for the principle “all men are created equal,” and the structure of our government that supports it. 

At a low point in his life, returning to Washington, D.C., after the funeral of his beloved grandfather who raised him, Thomas questioned the value of his life and work and asked, “Is there something in life that you will die for? ... What about your principles? ... I decided that the principles on which I was raised, my grandparents’, the principles of this country, were worth dying for.”

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So, what will Clarence Thomas do and how will he decide on the cases before the Supreme Court? He will act as he always has, in keeping with the principles to which he has dedicated his life, the principles of his grandfather and of this nation. We hope the rest of the court follows him.

Michael Pack and Mark Paoletta are co-editors of the forthcoming book "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words," taken from more than 25 hours of interviews with Justice Thomas conducted for the documentary of the same name. Pack produced and directed that film as well as over 15 other nationally broadcast documentaries. Paoletta is an attorney and worked on Justice Thomas’ confirmation. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Justice Clarence Thomas? He answers.