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Justice Clarence Thomas speaks -- and so do his detractors

January 15, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Justice Clarence Thomas
Justice Clarence Thomas (Randy Snyder / Associated…)

Not since "Garbo Talks!" has a public figure's decision to speak attracted such attention. I'm referring, of course, to the media sensation created this week when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke an almost seven-year-long silent streak to crack a joke during oral arguments in a case involving the adequacy of counsel in a Louisiana murder case.

As The Times' David Savage reported, most of what Thomas said was drowned out by cross-talk, but apparently he had some fun with the idea that one of the lawyers in the case should be considered qualified because she attended Yale Law School, Thomas' alma mater but an institution about which he has mixed feelings.

Thomas' comment ignited a firestorm of snarky commentary.  Some people revived the argument that his silence proves that he is incompetent or unserious. Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker rehearsed Thomas' complaint that he was admitted to Yale Law School under an affirmative-action program -- "and, as a result, suffered from a stigma that tainted his judicial career."

Toobin noted that Thomas used to display a "Yale Sucks" bumper sticker in his chambers. So maybe Thomas' joke was another mean-spirited and ungrateful dig at an institution to which he should be grateful.

I'm not a fan of Thomas' extreme and eccentric jurisprudence, though I think that having one of him on the court provides some valuable intellectual diversity. (The same was true of the late liberal Justice William O. Douglas.) But I've never thought his silence on the bench was anything more than a quirk, and a lot of his detractors don't realize that legendary liberal justices such as William J. Brennan Jr. were also parsimonious with questions during oral arguments.

As for the idea that Thomas' joke was proof that he retains some morbid grudge against Yale, Adam Liptak of the New York Times had a better explanation: "The joke itself seemed good-natured, and it was made funnier by Yale Law School’s reputation. While by some measure it is the best law school in the nation, it is also known for intellectual abstraction and disdain for the actual practice of law." (That's what I liked about the place.)

The antipathy to Thomas and the attacks on his intellect have always bothered me. It's an article of faith among some liberals that Thomas is a dunce, an under-qualified "affirmative action hire" or a clone of Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom he actually has differed on significant issues.

There is also the unsettling suggestion that, although it’s acceptable for a white justice to oppose affirmative action or support draconian criminal punishments, an African American justice can't be wrong on those issues.

Finally, if Thomas voted the way his detractors would prefer, we wouldn't hear so much about his "suspicious" silence.

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