Chief Justice William Rehnquist must loathe opening the morning paper these days. Every day, there is fresh speculation on his impending death or resignation. Pundits have opined on whether his agreement to administer the inaugural oath in January is a sign that he is staying or that he is bidding farewell. Every public appearance of associate justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia is scrutinized for clues as to who is leading in the chief- justice sweeps.
President Bush has long identified Thomas and Scalia as his two favorite jurists, and make no mistake about it, both are seeking the court’s top seat. The very concept of justices campaigning for a position may seem out of character for the staid and insular Supreme Court, but the court has its own brand of politics.
The intrigue escalated suddenly a couple of weeks ago when White House officials intentionally leaked that the president was leaning toward Thomas for chief justice. Liberals went into a frenzy, and the dust-up may have served to help Scalia’s chances. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded to the rumors by saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would oppose Thomas, whom he described as “an embarrassment to the Supreme Court.” Then, in a surprising concession, he said he could support Scalia as an alternative.
But Thomas is still the front-runner. Those who are astonished by his resurrection -- after his bruising 1991 confirmation hearing -- know little about his grit. Thomas likes to tell the story of how he was hounded by racist students at a Catholic school. The students took his statuette of St. Jude from next to his bed and broke off its head. Thomas glued it back together. When they did it again, he got industrial glue and pieced it back together. They stopped messing with his statuette.
Once Thomas was sworn in on the court, he seemed to disappear from view -- never speaking in oral arguments and rarely speaking publicly. However, he lost no time behind the scenes in patiently gluing himself back together. Over the course of the last decade, Thomas has quietly assembled an impressive power base in Washington, built the old-fashioned way -- one appointment at a time. He maintains the highest degree of influence while preserving the lowest possible profile.
He has secured top positions for his clerks and associates throughout the government, from the White House counsel’s office to the Justice Department to the United States Sentencing Commission. This cadre also includes an array of academic leaders, like Berkeley law professor (and former Justice official) John Yoo and media figures like talk-show host Laura Ingraham.
On Capitol Hill, Thomas is often seen lunching with congressional leaders, and he makes strategic appearances at conservative conferences. Various federal appellate and district judges (including Democrats) owe their confirmations to Thomas, who interceded with the Senate Republicans on their behalf.
The Washington Post told one story of how he works in behalf of conservative African American lawyers. A lawyer named Brian Jones was being vetted as assistant attorney general for civil rights -- a plum job. Jones unexpectedly got a call at a pizzeria shortly before his interview. Thomas was reportedly direct: “Don’t take that job.” “What job?” Jones asked. “You know the job I’m talking about.” Thomas considered it a “black job” and did not want Jones stereotyped, as Thomas had been as civil rights chief and chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In the end, Thomas may have too much baggage to carry through chief-justice confirmation hearings in the Senate, but the fact that he has made it this far is a testament to his political skill. He could become the next chief justice and, because he is the youngest member of the court by nine years, he might well outlast all of the current members in creating one of the longest tenures in court history.
I disagree with many of his opinions, but Thomas is neither an embarrassment nor a dolt -- at least no more so than most of the other justices on the court. He is, however, a patient man -- and time is on his side.