Michael Swartz / March 16, 2022

Justice Thomas Laments Loss of Civility

He took on cancel culture and court-packing in a recent speech about current events.

Many years ago, there was a series of television commercials featuring a bit where everyone around stopped to eavesdrop at the mention of a certain financial firm. Since he’s generally taciturn in performing his judicial duties, it’s also apparent that when Clarence Thomas talks, people listen.

This was the case last Friday in Utah, where our longest-tenured Supreme Court justice spoke before a group of 500 supporting the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, named after the longtime Republican senator from Utah. It was an address described as “his perspective on current events,” but first and foremost in his mind was stating: “I don’t know how we are going to survive as a society if we continue to exalt people who have bad manners, are insulting and negative. This is a civil society, and you need civility to make it work.” Consider the Hatch Foundation has civility and solutions as its “twin pillars” and it was clear Thomas was the right speaker to get that message across.

Yet a lot of the media coverage focused on his criticism of “cancel culture.” Thomas, as it was opined by political analyst Samuel Mangold-Lenett, may have been one of the earliest such targets during the “high-tech lynching” of his confirmation hearings. The jurist had this to say on the subject:

I’m afraid, particularly in this world of cancel culture attack, I don’t know where you’re going to learn to engage as we did when I grew up. If you don’t learn at that level in high school, in grammar school, in your neighborhood, or in civic organizations, then how do you have it when you’re making decisions in government, in the legislature, or in the courts?

This is particularly enlightening when you consider we have really had three bare-knuckle brawlers in a row as president, beginning with Barack Obama bringing a gun to a knife fight, continuing with the “mean tweets” and brash style of Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, who showed his total lack of civility in his treatment of Thomas during his confirmation hearing over three decades ago.

Other sectors of punditry chose to focus on the aspect of court-packing, which Democrats have advocated as a means of overcoming what’s perceived as a 6-3 conservative margin on the Supreme Court — notwithstanding the lack of reliability in some of those six. Of course, Thomas mentioned this in more of a passing fashion. “You can cavalierly talk about packing or stacking the court. You can cavalierly talk about doing this or doing that. At some point the institution is going to be compromised,” said Thomas. “By doing this, you continue to chip away at the respect of the institutions that the next generation is going to need if they’re going to have civil society.”

Interestingly enough, the mainstream media spin of Thomas’s remarks (from Sam Metz of the AP) couldn’t help but detract from the civility by bringing up the political activity of his wife Ginni, the prospects of him getting a fellow black justice in Ketanji Brown Jackson, and that Justice Thomas didn’t bring up abortion in his remarks despite the fact that Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will be decided sometime this year. Near the end of his story, Metz paraphrased that:

Thomas, who grew up in Georgia during segregation, said he held civility as one of his highest values. He said he learned to respect institutions and debate civilly with those who disagreed with him during his years in school. Based on conversations he’s had with students at his university lectures in recent years, he said he doesn’t believe colleges are welcoming places for productive debate, particularly for students who support what he described as traditional families or oppose abortion.

Thomas was incorrect in one respect: It’s not just colleges that aren’t welcoming places for debate. It’s sad to think that two of Thomas’s late Supreme Court colleagues, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were complete opposites in judicial philosophy yet were close friends. Those two are further lost examples of when civility despite differences was held in high esteem. Unfortunately, we’ve raised the political stakes so high due to the control our government has over us that society seems to believe no quarter should be given to the enemy.

To distill Thomas’s remarks to their essence: We should take a step back from the abyss.

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