Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was recently discussed on the latest Civitalk podcast. A superb piece of journalism titled “The Clarence Thomas Effect” over at The Atlantic was the launching pad for the discussion. I’ve always had an interest in Thomas given that I vividly remember the Thomas – Anita Hill hearings from my childhood. A decade ago I reviewed his autobiography “My Grandfather’s Son” at the Acton Institute. Thomas has had a hard and fascinating life in many respects. Obviously, a lot of daggers are still slung his way given he is a black conservative judicial voice who succeeded the liberal civil rights icon and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Not only that, he is viewed by many as the most conservative member of the high court.
Given all the talk about the future of conservatism in America, I think there’s a solid case that Thomas’s brand of conservatism is the best going forward. He has a deep understanding of the American Founders, the importance of virtue in our republic, and knows what are and aren’t rights. He’s obviously a textualist, a judge that champions the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. He’s not a horse trader for votes on the court and sticks to his principles above all else.
Thomas understands freedom or liberty is not just a ticket to do whatever you want but that it carries with it responsibility and obligations. His 2016 commencement address at Hillsdale College is forceful in uplifting that view:
Today, we rarely hear of our personal responsibilities in discussions of broad notions such as freedom or liberty. It is as though freedom and liberty exist wholly independent of anything we do, as if they are predestined.
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia got most of the attention for his dissent following the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling regarding same-sex marriage in 2015. Scalia, of course, had some great lines. However, when it comes to the understanding of rights, this line from Thomas is perhaps the most brilliant:
Our Constitution—like the Declaration of Independence before it—was predicated on a simple truth: One’s liberty, not to mention one’s dignity, was something to be shielded from—not provided by—the State.
Of course, the continual distortion of our Constitution has widespread ramifications for man’s relationship to the state and his/her understanding of where rights truly originate. This is critical in an era where many are touting wild victimhood and identity politics. For too many, the state is viewed as a master that must dispense the latest whims and desires of the aggrieved. Liberty is in harmony with freedom from government coercion or action and is not a liberty to special benefits or favoritism from the state.
Thomas, the longest-serving member of the high court, is getting his due of late. As The Atlantic piece pointed out, his influence is expanding in the larger legal and political culture. That’s a good thing. The lessons and truths Thomas touts are timeless and an essential roadmap for the future of conservatism and vital for a healthy American republic.