Thomas Warms Bench During
Full-Court Press

By Courtland Milloy-Washington Post

Sunday, December 3, 2000

I wanted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to speak up during those historic hearings Friday, if only to give the courtroom artist a more challenging assignment.

The other justices, all of whom spoke out, were depicted in detail and were animated in ways that accentuated their characters: a principled Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a persistent Antonin Scalia, a savvy David Souter.

Thomas just sat there like a bump on a log. And most of the sketches of him that I saw amounted to little more than a smudge in the background. He looked like the only kid in class who had not done his homework and was shrinking in his chair.

Thomas's colleagues fired off more than 90 questions in 90 minutes. For some strange reason, Thomas can go an entire court term without asking a single one.

So not only is the circle of Supreme Court specialists--lawyers who appear most frequently before the nation's high court--virtually all white; the justices who do virtually all the talking are, too.

I just can't imagine Thurgood Marshall not saying a word while sitting in on a case that reeks of voter disenfranchisement, following a presidential election in which hundreds, if not thousands, of blacks are claiming voter suppression and intimidation.

Then again, I could not have imagined any black Supreme Court justice voting to give police the power to set up roadblocks, anytime and anyplace, in hopes of catching drug suspects, as Thomas did last week. Especially not with racial profiling so rampant.

Of course, I have never met anybody quite like Thomas. I would truly like to know more about what's behind the dull, lifeless look that some courtroom artists captured Friday. Was he in a thoughtful trance, or just bored?

The background I know. But that makes him more enigmatic.

Born dirt-poor to a teenage mother in a shanty near the marshes of Pin Point, Ga., Thomas was eventually raised by grandparents and later attended Catholic school. He worked his way through Holy Cross College and then attended Yale Law School.

That up-from-poverty experience would not make him a traditional freedom fighter, however, at least not in the liberal tradition of Marshall.

Indeed, the lesson Thomas drew seems to go like this: If oppression can turn you into a Supreme Court justice like me, then we need more oppression.

How else do you explain his decisions so far? He has voted to cut off debate in a death penalty case, even when newly revealed evidence might have proven the defendant innocent. He has cast the deciding vote to make it harder for blacks to prove they were victims of job discrimination. He has even voted against expanding voting rights for blacks and, in one case, disputed the history of using the 1965 Voting Rights Act to help elect more blacks in the South.

In last week's case about the use of roadblocks by police, which Thomas's side lost in a 6 to 3 vote, he wrote a rare separate dissent in which he seemed to acknowledge that he knew that such roadblocks were wrong but that he was going to side with conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Scalia anyway.

Sort of thumbing his nose at black America.

It was similar to his decision, after two weeks on the bench, to support a prison guard who had shackled, handcuffed and beaten an inmate for talking back.

In that case, Thomas's thinking was so wrongheaded that practically none of his colleagues agreed with him. At his confirmation hearing in 1991, Thomas testified that he could identify with the plight of prisoners. From his courthouse window, he said, he saw busload after busload of young men headed to prison.

"I say to myself almost every day, 'But for the grace of God, there go I,' " Thomas said.

These days, you have to wonder whether Thomas was smiling with glee when he said it.


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