Arguably the most conservative justice in recent U.S. Supreme Court history, Clarence Thomas is well-known for his conservative/libertarian leanings. He strongly supports states' rights and takes a strict constructivist approach to interpreting the U.S. Constitution. He has consistently taken political conservative positions in decisions dealing with executive power, free speech, the death penalty and affirmative action. Thomas is unafraid of voicing his dissent with the majority, even when it is politically unpopular.
Thomas was born June 23, 1948, in the small, impoverished town of Pin Point, Ga., the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas and Leola Williams. Thomas was abandoned by his father at the age of two and left to the care of his mother, who raised him as a Roman Catholic. When he was seven, Thomas' mother remarried and sent him and his younger brother to live with his grandfather. At his grandfather's request, Thomas left his all-black high school to attend seminary school, where he was the only African American on campus. Despite experiencing extensive racism, Thomas nevertheless graduated with honors.
Thomas had considered becoming a priest, which was one reason he chose to attend St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary in Savannah, where he was one of just four Black students. Thomas was still on track to be a priest when he attended Conception Seminary College, but he left after hearing a student utter a racist comment in response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomas transferred to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he founded the Black Student Union. After graduation, Thomas failed a military medical exam, which excluded him from being drafted. He then enrolled in Yale Law School.
Immediately after graduating from law school, Thomas found it difficult to obtain a job. Many employers falsely believed that he received his law degree due only to affirmative action programs. Nevertheless, Thomas landed a job as an assistant US attorney for Missouri under John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate, Thomas worked as a private attorney for an agriculture firm from 1976 to 1979. In 1979, he returned to work for Danforth as his legislative assistant. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, he offered Thomas a job as Assistant Secretary of Education in the Office of Civil Rights. Thomas accepted.
Not long after his appointment, the president promoted Thomas to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As director of the EEOC, Thomas angered civil rights groups when he shifted the focus of the agency from filing class-action discrimination lawsuits. Instead, he concentrated on reducing discrimination in the workplace, and emphasizing his philosophy of self-reliance for African Americans, chose to pursue individual discrimination suits. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC.
Supreme Court Nomination
Less than a year after Thomas was appointed to the appeals court, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall-the nation's first African American Justice-announced his retirement. Bush, impressed with Thomas' conservative positions, nominated him to fill the position. Facing a Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee and the wrath of civil rights groups, Thomas faced stiff opposition. Recalling how conservative Judge Robert Bork had doomed his nomination by providing detailed answers at his confirmation hearings, Thomas was hesitant to provide lengthy answers to interrogatories.
Just before the end of his hearings, an FBI investigation was leaked to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding sexual harassment allegations leveled at Thomas by former EEOC staff worker Anita Hill. Hill was aggressively questioned by the committee and offered shocking details of Thomas' alleged sexual misconduct. Hill was the only witness to testify against Thomas, although another staffer offered similar allegations in a written statement.
Although Hill's testimony had transfixed the nation, preempted soap operas and competed for airtime with the World Series, Thomas never lost is composure, maintaining his innocence throughout the proceedings, yet expressing his outrage at the "circus" the hearings had become. In the end, the judiciary committee was deadlocked at 7-7, and the confirmation was sent to the full Senate for a floor vote with no recommendation being made. Thomas was confirmed 52-48 along partisan lines in one of the narrowest margins in Supreme Court history.
Service to the Court
Once his nomination was secured and he took his seat on the High Court, Thomas quickly asserted himself as a conservative justice. Aligned primarily with conservative justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, Thomas is nonetheless his own man. He has offered lone dissenting opinions, and at times, has been the sole conservative voice on the Court.