He is a man who says he does not read newspapers and seldom if ever watches newscasts. If true, it’s probably a good thing, because he has been the center of political controversy since his confirmation hearings in 1991 and the object of patronizing and dismissive commentary by many legal scholars. But though he was confirmed by the Senate by a slim 52-47 margin, he holds a lifetime appointment and has said that he intends to serve for 40 years — longer than any previous justice.
Thomas’s confirmation and role on the court are of special interest as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins its hearings tomorrow on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to succeed the retired Justice David Souter. The vetting of Sotomayor promises to be a tame affair compared with the tumultuous and controversial grilling of Thomas in 1991, which he characterized as a “high-tech lynching.”
Sotomayor seems to share the views of Hispanic politicians and advocacy organizations and will face a committee controlled by the party of the president who nominated her. Thomas, by contrast, appeared before a hostile committee majority as a nominee who had disagreed with the views of most black politicians and civil rights organizations.
Thomas told the story of his life up to the time he took his seat on the court in his best-selling memoir “My Grandfather’s Son.” It’s a dramatic story, of growing up in the segregated Deep South, raised by a stern and hard-working grandfather (“the greatest man I have ever known”), of rebelling against him and rejecting his church (“I was an angry young black man”), of academic achievement and personal failings. At Yale Law School he took tax and corporation classes and did better than his detractors have suggested; tax law professor Boris Bittker every year set aside several anonymous exam bluebooks as examples of good work, and one year one of those bluebooks was Clarence Thomas’.
Having recently read Justice Thomas's memoir, I'm reminded of the appalling indecency with which the man was treated in his hearing. Fortunately he had the courage and the will to defend himself appropriately.