In Defense of Clarence Thomas

(This piece was cross-posted at the HLPR blog, where I’ve been writing this semester, but I had long-ago intended it as part deux of the “In Defense of” series, which started with farm subsidies.)

I recently asked my Facebook network which Supreme Court justice, modern or historical, would they elect to partner with on a Constitutional Law final exam, assuming the justice had taken the class with them that semester. John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Robert Jackson, and William Brennan were predictable choices as powerful writers and influential molders of constitutional thought. Scalia, well-known for his bombastic style yet clear exposition of facts and law, was popular. Clarence Thomas received no votes. Perhaps it is to be expected that among the constellation of judicial stars, Thomas would pale in popularity–his legacy, after all, has yet to be defined. No doubt for others his judicial philosophy, hewing tightly to original intent and historical understanding, leaves progressive-minded comrades ill at ease. Yet if a motivating factor for unpopularity is Thomas’ silence at oral argument, I would ask my friends to reconsider.

Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court in October 1991. On February 22, 2006, Thomas posed a question during oral argument, and has stayed silent ever since. His silence has been the subject of much commentary and speculation, and perhaps inevitably, ridicule and accusations of un-intellectualism. This disparaging category of charges is unfair, and deserves some scrutiny.

In a piece on the fifth anniversary of Thomas’ silence, Adam Liptak of the New York Times quoted a law review article which opined: “If Justice Thomas holds a strong view of the law in a case, he should offer it . . . It is not enough that Justice Thomas merely attend oral argument if he does not participate in argument meaningfully.” One Huffington Post author, writing on important questions Thomas had asked, noted, “. . . Thomas’ silence has also left many casual observers — that is, ordinary American citizens — with the impression that the man either does not care about the cases or cannot intellectually compete with his colleagues.”

Continue reading