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Political Editors / October 26, 2021

In Brief: 30 Years for Justice Clarence Thomas

The beloved conservative, originalist jurist just marked 30 years on the Supreme Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas is arguably the most reliable originalist on the Supreme Court, and Saturday market his 30th anniversary on the bench. Thomas Jipping of The Heritage Foundation reflects:

Describing, let alone evaluating, a 30-year judicial record is challenging on its own, but Thomas’ record of judicial service is continuing. A few aspects of his Supreme Court tenure stand out.

Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in Gamble v. United States in which he described the “modest” judicial task this way: “We interpret and apply written law to the facts of particular cases.” Sounds simple enough. Since America’s Founders designed our system of government, however, the tough issue has been how judges should perform this modest task.

Thomas has always been clear about the right answer. When Thomas’ confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee opened on Sept. 10, 1991, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “I am confident that Judge Thomas will interpret the law according to its original meaning, rather than substitute his own policy preferences for the law.”

Those are, in fact, the two basic interpretive choices: figuring out what the law’s author meant by what the author wrote, or imposing a meaning upon the law of the judge’s choosing. Thomas embraces the former, and rejects the latter.

Ironically, this humble and faithful approach is what drives leftists most batty. Yet it’s exactly what makes Thomas an outstanding justice.

A March 2008 profile in The Wall Street Journal, titled “Mr. Constitution,” quoted him this way: “I don’t put myself in a category. Maybe I am labeled as an originalist or something, but … I don’t feel I have any particular right to put my gloss on your constitution. My job is simply to interpret it.”

Thomas brings this understanding of the judicial job description to each case. He is not satisfied with the court reaching the right result, but insists on reaching that result in the right way.

Jipping recounts numerous cases in which Thomas staked out this sometimes difficult position. The result is a legacy of defending Rule of Law. He concludes:

Before joining the Supreme Court, Thomas served for 19 months on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Shortly after joining that court, he and I talked about how he viewed his judicial role as different from his previous position as head of an executive branch agency. Every day when I put on that robe, Thomas said, “I have to remind myself that I am only a judge.”

It’s easy to find others eager to say this to a judge, but it is much more profound for a judge to say this to himself. This is why Justice Clarence Thomas will continue to have such a profound impact on our nation and our liberty.

Read the whole thing here.

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