In rulings, little hint of his meager start
In his new, bestselling memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” Justice Clarence Thomas tells the story of his personal struggle to overcome poverty and racism.
Raised by his grandparents in Savannah, Ga., he credits his success to his grandfather’s strict work ethic and to those who shaped his early life and helped him along the way.
“Their story is my story,” he writes. “Their struggles in the face of futility, their perseverance through accumulated injustices, their resilience in the face of broken promises and dashed dreams.”
His book ends in 1991 when he is confirmed to the Supreme Court and takes the oath to “do equal right to the poor and to the rich.”
But rarely have the hardships of the young Thomas been evident in the opinions of Justice Thomas. In his 16 years on the high court, Thomas has established a stern judicial philosophy that leaves little room for siding with underdogs in disputes with governments or corporations. Often, he has brusquely dissented when the court has ruled in favor of poor people, prisoners or ordinary taxpayers.
“Justice Thomas’ opinions do not reflect any special sympathy for poor people,” said David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His is “not the track of record of a justice championing the interests of the poor or disenfranchised.”
Thomas never promised he would take the side of poor people or ordinary Americans. “A judge must be fair and impartial,” he told the Senate at his confirmation hearing, and must not bring to the job “an ideology and certainly not an agenda.”
If nothing else, his judicial record gives the lie to the notion that a person’s early struggles are a reliable predictor of his later political or legal views.
In recent interviews, Thomas said he had been viciously attacked because he refused to play the role that others expected of him. “There are so many people who have this idea of who I am, because I’m black. . . . I’m black; therefore my views should be these things. And if I deviate from those, something is wrong with me,” he said on C-SPAN. “And so you get these very, very divergent views.
“If I were a black liberal, I would be hailed, I guess. But I’m not. I think for myself.”
Thomas’ conservative views on major issues such as abortion and school desegregation have been apparent in some high-profile cases. Less well known are his views in the many relatively minor or obscure disputes that come before the high court.
Last year, for example, the court took up the case of Gary K. Jones, a retired federal employee from Little Rock, Ark., who had lost his house. He had paid off the mortgage over 30 years, but had separated from his wife and moved into an apartment. She did not pay the property taxes or forward notices addressed to him.
When a certified letter to Jones was returned undelivered, state officials sold the house to cover the unpaid taxes. They did not try further to contact Jones -- who was listed in the local phone book and had paid state taxes from his new address -- nor did they post a notice on the house.
Jones found an ally in the new chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr. “In this case, the state is exerting extraordinary power against a property owner -- taking and selling a house he owns,” Roberts said for a five-member majority. “It is not too much to insist that the state do a bit more to attempt to let him know about it.”
Thomas sharply disagreed. “The meaning of the Constitution should not turn on the antics of tax evaders and scofflaws,” he wrote. The state had published a notice in a local newspaper, and “due process requires nothing more,” he wrote.
His dissent surprised Jones’ attorney. “I was taken aback by the harsh tone of it,” said Michael Kirkpatrick of Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group. “There is a ‘blame-the-victim’ mentality to it. Gary Jones wasn’t trying to avoid paying his taxes. This was about the Constitution and the court protecting the little guy from the government.”
Thomas’ supporters say his duty is to faithfully follow the law, not to bend it to favor hard-luck litigants.
“There aren’t many cases where his personal experience comes out in his opinions,” said John Eastman, dean of the Chapman University School of Law in Anaheim and a former clerk to Thomas. “He is a judge, not a legislator. He doesn’t adjust the law to fit his personal experiences.
“In the Jones case, you don’t expand the Constitution to get a favorable outcome. And besides, if you own a house, you should know you have to pay your taxes.”
Thomas has regularly rejected claims from poor people that rely on a broad view of “due process of law.”
For example, in 1996, a mother from Mississippi came before the high court facing the loss of her right to see her children. Melissa Brooks’ ex-husband had remarried and won a judge’s order that took away her parental rights and made his new wife the children’s adoptive mother.
The state then said she could not appeal unless she paid $2,352 for a transcript and court fees. Brooks, a waitress, said she could not afford it. Mississippi was the only state that denied free appeals in such poverty cases.
This case poses “the ‘age-old problem’ of ‘providing equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike,’ ” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a 6-3 majority, quoting a 1956 ruling. The state cannot take away a parent’s right without giving her a chance to appeal, the high court ruled.
Thomas wrote a lengthy dissent, disputing that the state “somehow violates the Constitution when it charges reasonable fees of all would-be appellants.” He also said the high court had gone wrong more than 50 years ago when it struck down state rules just because they “had a disproportionate effect on poor persons.”
Also in 1996, the justices rejected an appeal from Michigan homemaker Tina Bennis, who had lost use of the family car after her husband was arrested with a prostitute. Detroit prosecutors seized the 11-year-old Pontiac as a “public nuisance.” Bennis argued that she was an “innocent owner” and should not lose her property without due process, but lost 5 to 4.
Thomas cast a key vote for the majority, which held that Michigan’s property seizure law was not unconstitutional.
In a concurring opinion, he agreed Bennis was not “guilty of any wrongdoing. . . . This case is ultimately a reminder that the federal Constitution does not prohibit everything that is intensely undesirable.”
In a handful of cases, Thomas has cited the plight of the poor and minorities to criticize liberal rulings.
Two years ago, he took the side of Susette Kelo, a Connecticut woman who refused to give up her small pink house to make way for a redevelopment project. She challenged the power of eminent domain, and her case became a national cause celebre when the Supreme Court ruled against her, 5 to 4.
The court’s majority said that the 5th Amendment requires the government to pay when it seizes property “for public use,” but added it does not prevent city officials from buying up land to “promote economic development.”
In Thomas’ dissent, in which he argued that private redevelopment does not qualify as public use, he cited urban renewal projects whose effect fell “disproportionately on poor communities” and “the least politically powerful.” He quoted a report that said “urban renewal came to be known as ‘Negro removal.’ ”
And when the court struck down a “gang loitering” ordinance from Chicago eight years ago, Thomas wrote that he feared the court had “sentenced law-abiding citizens to lives of terror and misery.” In his dissent, Thomas derided the 6-3 majority for upholding a “constitutional right to loiter” while ignoring the effect of gangs on “our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Thomas has been particularly dismissive of the rights of prisoners, as evidenced by his rejection of one prisoner’s claim that he was sadistically beaten by guards. Though the Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” Thomas wrote in his dissent, this provision was not conceived as “protecting inmates from harsh treatment.”
Thomas has repeated his view that the ban on cruel and unusual punishment applies only to sentencing and methods of execution, and does not extend to the treatment of prisoners.
The case of Hudson vs. McMillian came before the court just weeks after Thomas arrived. Keith Hudson, a Louisiana inmate, said he was pulled from his cell, put in handcuffs, held by two guards and punched in the face repeatedly. A supervisor watched and warned the guards “not to have too much fun.”
Hudson was bruised, his teeth were loosened, and his dental plate was cracked. He sued, and after hearing the evidence, a magistrate awarded him $800 in damages. Louisiana appealed, arguing that Hudson had no claim because he had not suffered permanent injury.
In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled in favor of Hudson. Though guards may use force to maintain order in prisons , they may not “maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm,” said then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Thomas dissented, as did Justice Antonin Scalia. Hudson’s injury was minor, Thomas said. “In my view, our society . . . has no expectation that prisoners will have ‘unqualified’ freedom from force, since forcibly keeping prisoners in detention is what prisons are all about.”
Echoing his reasoning in the Bennis case, he added that it was wrong to assume that the Constitution “must address all ills in our society.”