Yesterday—during oral arguments involving competence of defense counsel—Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in an audible voice from the bench of the Supreme Court.
Today, The New York Times devoted 24 column-inches and two photos to Adam Liptak's account of Thomas "breaking the silence."
For almost seven years, the African-American Supreme Court justice appointed by George H.W. Bush has not uttered one word from the bench. This is a remarkable accomplishment in a forum where attorneys struggle to get in a few sentences of oral argument as justices assault them with comments and questions.
Yesterday, when Justice Thomas spoke, it appears that he made a disparaging remark about his alma mater. (The transcript noted cross-talk and laughter and the precise comment is not clear.)
I understand that his race gets under his skin. But until reading the Times today, I was unaware of Thomas's contempt for Yale Law School, where he earned his law degree in 1974.
Liptak quotes Thomas's memoir, where he wrote that he "peeled a 15-cent price sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I'd made by going to Yale."
Thomas's contempt for Yale was so great that for more than 30 years after graduating he refused to return to New Haven.
What's with a man who rejects his past? Is it that it doesn't square with his judicial philosophy? Would an honorary degree from Pepperdine, or the Ave Maria School of Law (endowed by right-wing pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan), make Clarence Thomas whole?
Ivy Leauge hatred makes sense when viewed through the anti-intellectual optics of today's Republican Party. But maybe it's more than that.
Thomas made it out of a dirt-poor upbringing in rural Georgia, not entirely on his own merits but as part of "an aggressive (and successful) affirmative action program with a clear goal: 10 percent minority enrollment," Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon reported in 1995. Beyond affirmative action admission, Yale provided Thomas with generous financial aid.
Before Yale, Thomas attended Holy Cross on a scholarship set aside for minority students.
Solomon and Cohen were reporting on a case in which a 5-4 majority of the court voted to restrict affirmative action—and only Thomas argued for an immediate end to affirmative action.
Three years ago, Thomas took a similar position in a Texas case challenging Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires states with a history of obstructing voting rights of blacks (minorities of language were included in the statute later) to preclear any changes in voting law, with either the Justice Department or with a federal court in Washington, D.C.
The 5-4 majority crafted a narrow technical response that provided the small Texas utility district a way to "bail out" of the preclearance requirement.
Thomas argued that the court should have voted on the constitutionality of Section 5, which he is ready to overturn.
The goals of the civil rights movement have been fulfilled, Thomas wrote in a separate opinion. More than 40 years after the Voting Rights Act passed "the violence, indimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this Court to uphold it no longer remains."
Justice Thomas must not get out much.
I spent the week after Christmas interviewing black elected officials in Shelby County, Alabama, where subterfuge in elections is pretty common.
On February 27, the Supreme Court will hear a case filed by Shelby County, where an all-white, all-Republican county commission complains that Section 5 (which has been used to level the playing field for blacks) is burdensome and unconstitutional.
Justice Thomas has already told us in writing how he intends to vote.
Will he have anything to say from the bench?