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In the Matter of Justice Thomas : Silent, Aloof and Frequently Dogmatic, Clarence Thomas' Judicial Persona Emerges

October 09, 1994|David G. Savage | David G. Savage, a Times staff writer, covers the Supreme Court

Presley sued, contending that this move to strip him of power violated the Voting Rights Act. But on a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court rejected the claim in Presley vs. Etowah County. "This is a case where a few pages of history are far more illuminating than volumes of logic," John Paul Stevens wrote for the three dissenters. Congress wanted to end schemes used to deprive blacks of political power, so the court should enforce the will of Congress, not thwart it, he said.

But writing for a conservative majority, Justice Kennedy said the 1965 law applies only "with respect to voting," not to "routine actions of state and local governments." Thomas joined his opinion.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 30, 1994 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, Lani Guinier was incorrectly identified in "Lone Justice" (Oct. 9), about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as a Clinton nominee for attorney general. She had been nominated for assistant attorney general to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department.

Alice Presley told Emerge magazine that her husband had, in the tumultuous days of Thomas' confirmation, believed that because of his background, "we ought to give the guy a chance." But after the 1992 ruling, Presley, who died in January, 1993, realized he had made a mistake. "That really hurt him more than the decision. He would walk around saying, 'I can't believe Thomas voted against me,' " Alice Presley said.

Last year, Thomas cast the deciding fifth vote to rule that drawing congressional boundaries solely to create black-majority districts violated the constitutional rights of whites. And this year, Thomas went even further and disputed the entire 25-year history of using the Voting Rights Act to help elect more blacks in the South.

The issue arose in an unusual case from rural Bleckley County, Ga., where all power is exercised by a single county commissioner who acts as both executive and legislature. Blacks, who make up 20% of the population, said they were excluded from power and filed a suit under the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals, relying on Congress' 1982 amendments to the voting rights law, agreed with the black voters and ordered the county to switch to a five-member commission.

Those amendments underlined that any "standard, practice or procedure" used in the electoral process would violate the law if it denied racial and ethnic minorities the right "to elect representatives of their choice." If a large black or Latino population is denied representation because of the way district boundaries are drawn, those lines are illegal, even if they were not intended to discriminate. Minorities are not guaranteed proportional representation, but the law tells judges they must examine "the extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to office in the state or political subdivision."

On the high court, the justices voted 5 to 4 to overturn the appeals court and uphold Bleckley County's single commissioner system. Why? Three members of the majority--Kennedy, Rehnquist and O'Connor--said the courts can't decide the size of a governing body because there is no "benchmark" for deciding what is fair. If Bleckley would need five commissioners to give blacks a voice, should the next county have 20 commissioners so it could serve a group with 5% of the population? they asked.

But Thomas, in a 59-page separate opinion, took the view that the Voting Rights Act does not cover the make-up of governing boards and the drawing of electoral boundaries, no matter what their effect on minorities. He said he would reject 25 years of court precedent on the issue and ignore what Congress has said on the subject.

His broad arguments, though familiar, have a certain power. The law as currently interpreted "encourages federal courts to segregate voters into racially designated districts . . . . In doing so, we have collaborated in what may aptly be termed the racial Balkanization of the nation," he wrote.

Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot called his opinion, which Scalia joined, an "intellectual bombshell" and a "tour de force." This is Thomas at his best, arguing that there is a price to pay for elevating race as the all-important factor in politics and the law.

But Thomas' view of the law has one obvious drawback: Congress does not agree with him. As Justice Stevens pointed out in an opinion joined by Souter, Ginsburg and Blackmun, it is "crystal clear" that Congress wrote the law to apply to voting districts that denied minorities the right "to elect representatives of their choice."

Sen. Specter, who had closely questioned Thomas to seek assurance that the nominee would abide by long-standing interpretations of federal civil rights law, heard Thomas give the desired assurances. "If there is a longstanding interpretation and Congress does not act . . . that certainly would be, at least from my way of looking at a statute, evidence that cannot be ignored in revisiting that particular statute," he told Specter. But that was just the kind of longstanding interpretation of the voting-rights law that Thomas ignored in June.

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