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In rulings, little hint of his meager start

Justice Clarence Thomas has carved out a stern judicial philosophy in which his early struggles are rarely apparent.

October 28, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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