10 years later, an inside look at Clarence Thomas

Published July 6, 2001|Updated Sept. 10, 2005

In 1991, Clarence Thomas told the nation he had "died a thousand deaths."

His U.S. Senate confirmation, he said, amounted to a "high-tech lynching" on national TV that stole his dignity, ruined his reputation and robbed him of his manhood.

Today _ 10 years after his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and 34 years after he left Savannah, Ga. _ Thomas has remade himself. He enjoys the respect of his colleagues and of conservatives across America. He has settled into a secluded suburban lifestyle. He has even become a father again, the unlikely consequence of a nephew who succumbed to the lure of illegal drugs.

Yet for all the outward success, Thomas presents a picture of a man still nursing inner wounds. He cries in public _ not often, but suddenly and uncontrollably. The tears suggest an emotional and more complex side to a man the New York Times, in a 1992 editorial, called the "youngest, cruelest justice."

He professes indifference to the withering assault from critics but answers it in kind, insisting he cannot be intimidated.

Thomas, 53, has built a stone wall around his personal life, denying most requests for interviews and shunning friends who make unwelcome public comments about him.

"You don't want to cross him, or he'll cut you off. I know," said talk show host Armstrong Williams, a former aide to Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

For reasons that remain a mystery even to close friends, Thomas has chosen a public profile that is strikingly at odds with who he is in private. On the bench, he is quiet, sitting hour after hour during oral arguments, rarely asking a question.

But off the court, as Thomas' friends know, he can't stop talking. A 10-minute courtesy call to his chambers can become a two-hour bull session. A phone call from Thomas can last an hour, and his friends never know when to expect them.

Dour and impassive on the bench, Thomas in private regales friends with his quick humor and captivates them with a deep, baritone laugh.

On the court, Thomas is known for his rigid interpretation of the Constitution and the law. In private, Thomas can't say no. He sees hundreds of schoolchildren every year, simply because they ask. One year, he loaned a car to a clerk who couldn't afford to keep his running.

Reviled by critics for his votes that affect minorities, Thomas' life today is distinguished by the hours he spends helping black youths. He has arranged tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid for these young people to attend private schools, but few people know about the help because he discourages publicity.

Thomas' private diversions defy the public's image of a Supreme Court justice. He owns a limited-edition black Corvette ZR-1 and is a fanatic about NASCAR. In 1999, he became the only Supreme Court justice to serve as grand marshal at the Daytona 500, using his booming voice to command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

He is a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan in a city where the archrival Washington Redskins rule. Thomas receives daily team updates by e-mail, and he is a frequent guest in the visiting owner's box when the Cowboys come to town.

An athletic wonder in school, Thomas may be the most macho Supreme Court justice the country has ever seen. His waistline has expanded with age, and once jet-black hair is now mostly silver. But a barrel chest and powerful biceps, sculpted by regular weight lifting, still attest to the prowess of Thomas' youth.

In his leisure time, Thomas roams the country in a 40-foot, custom-built bus, a kind of houseboat on eight wheels he purchased in 1999. Owning the bus was the fulfillment of a dream, and its acquisition was rooted in the longings of his uneducated grandfather, who raised Thomas with strict discipline and tough love after his own parents divorced.

Wrapped in sheets of steel, the bus is Thomas' mobile fortress, a suit of armor that allows him the freedom and anonymity he has long craved.

Its painted upper panels feature a red and orange flame motif sizzling around the sides. Like much of Thomas' life, the smoky black windows are impenetrable from the outside.

Heart on his sleeve

Trips home always evoke strong emotions for Thomas. He left Savannah when he was 19, but he has returned many times, most recently in May to speak at the bar association's annual Law Day luncheon. The evening before, he stopped by to see his 72-year-old mother, Leola Williams, and eat deviled crabs, her specialty, in the home off E Broad Street his grandfather Myers Anderson built.

On other trips Thomas has driven to Midway, Ga., to visit the gravesites of his grandparents and younger brother, Myers Thomas, who died last year. The graves are a short walk from the 75-acre family farm where Thomas and his brother spent their summers.

On this day, among old acquaintances, Thomas spoke of his longing for Savannah and the friends he left behind. He remarked on his 10th anniversary on the court, noting when he went on the bench, the media portrayed him as stupid.

"Now, I don't know what the hell I am," he said.

Toward the end of his speech, Thomas turned to thank Joe Bergen, a local lawyer who handled the custody case of Thomas' grandnephew three years earlier.

Thomas stopped in mid sentence. He trembled. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Nearly a half-minute passed before he tried to speak again.

"Boy, that's embarrassing," Thomas said.

In the uneasy silence, someone called out softly, "You're home."

"I apologize for the interruption," Thomas said, still unable to continue. Finally, he gave up. "Suffice it to say that I thank God for Joe Bergen."

Thomas has struggled with his emotions in public before. On the day of his nomination, he choked back tears when he invoked the memory of his late grandfather, who demanded Thomas work hard in school so one day he might have a "coat-and-tie job."

Two months after the death of his brother in January 2000, Thomas struggled for composure as he bared his soul to lawyers and judges in Tampa. Thomas described to them his feelings as he gazed at his brother's lifeless body. "Being on the Supreme Court was meaningless," Thomas said. The only things that mattered in life, he said, were faith, family and friends.

Thomas' obsession with privacy dates from 1991, when the media camped outside his Alexandria, Va., house during the nearly two weeks Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment dominated coverage of his nomination. Thomas and his wife felt like prisoners in their home. Court marshals, concerned about Thomas' safety, escorted them in and out. The marshals even insisted he wear a bulletproof vest when he faced cameras on the day of his confirmation by the Senate.

A year later, Thomas took steps to ensure he would never live in a fishbowl again. The couple moved to a 10-room house, designed so it would not be visible from the street, on a wooded 5-acre lot in Fairfax County, outside Washington.

During his confirmation, Thomas became convinced someone was trying to kill him, according to former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who championed Thomas' nomination in the Senate. Today, Thomas still views himself as a victim of liberal interest groups and a biased media.

Explaining his reluctance to be interviewed, Thomas said his experience 10 years ago was far worse than anything the Ku Klux Klan could have done to him.

"I harbor a lot of resentment toward your industry," he told a reporter.

Thomas doesn't discuss his searing confirmation battle with friends, but his anger toward the media, even 10 years later, suggests the wounds are still raw.

"He's never put it out of his mind, and he never can," Danforth said. "That was a very scarring experience for him."

Indeed, one of Thomas' most distinguishing personality traits is his long, almost encyclopedic, memory. The past is always present for Thomas _ never more so than in his memories of his grandfather, who died in 1983.

Myers Anderson is an idealized figure in nearly every speech his grandson gives. Thomas extols his grandfather's work ethic, dignity and values. Anderson, he said, suffered the indignities of discrimination but never complained or made excuses.

Conservative faction

Last September, as Thomas fielded questions at the University of Louisville, a student wanted to know: Does the Supreme Court justice write all his own opinions? Thomas' deadpan rejoinder jolted the audience: "No, Justice Scalia does." The students laughed nervously.

The brief stab at humor was the second time in 30 minutes that Thomas confronted a perception that has dogged him for 10 years: Justice Antonin Scalia, a white man of Italian descent, is the puppeteer who guides his votes and crafts his judicial opinions.

"Because I am black, it is said that Justice Scalia has to do my work for me," Thomas said earlier. "He must somehow have a chip in my brain and controls me that way."

In fact, Thomas has written dozens of provocative opinions and dissents _ none that rank as landmark legal cases _ but brick by brick he is building a judicial legacy.

Thomas has spent his entire public life seeking to distinguish himself as an independent thinker who transcends skin color. But not even the white marble walls of the Supreme Court, hewn from the hills of his native Georgia, have insulated him from racial stereotyping.

Thomas' race played a powerful role in shaping his political beliefs, and it continues to shape his judicial philosophy. Of the nearly 1,000 cases that he has voted on, decisions dealing with affirmative action, school desegregation and voting rights have won the most attention.

His mere presence on the Supreme Court has emboldened black conservatives around the country. But his race and political views continue to make him a lightning rod for criticism.

"I don't see an overwhelming amount of compassion for people less well off in our society," American University law professor Stephen Wermiel said. "I see somebody who seems to care more deeply about the text of the Constitution and the process of reading it than its beneficiaries."

Thomas is an integral part of the conservative faction that has steered the court back from the perceived excesses of the Warren and Burger courts.

He anchors his judicial thinking in the promise of equality spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and the notion of ordered liberty embodied in the Constitution. But echoes of Thomas' experiences with segregation and affirmative action ring throughout his legal writings.

Thomas has concluded that affirmative action stigmatizes blacks in ways that are ultimately destructive. As both black and conservative, he grew to detest the expectation that, because of his skin color, he should be liberal. That mindset drives his decisions on voting rights and redistricting cases affecting racial minorities.

At his core, Thomas believes passionately that God created the races equally, and he loathes laws and programs that assume otherwise. Thomas rejects government paternalism in any form.

He believes in rules _ the fewer the better, and the same ones for everybody. As he told students in Louisville, Ky., he grew up under a system with two sets of books: one for whites and one for blacks. "I'm not going back to two sets of books," he said.

"I don't need people to agree with me," he added a few moments later. "I'm very comfortable being alone in my views."

In 1968, Thomas left Savannah to attend Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. It was there that he developed deep reservations about affirmative action, feeling that people assumed because he was black that he was not qualified to be there, he told others later. The self-consciousness intensified when Thomas was admitted under Yale's affirmative action program as one of 12 blacks in a class of 165.

At Yale, Thomas chose a different career track than other black law students. Rather than civil rights, he focused on business and tax law, some of the most arcane and difficult courses at Yale.

He thought he could earn more money in business law. But when the big law firms interviewed him, Thomas said later, they seemed mostly interested in him because he was black.

"Prospective employers dismissed our grades and diplomas, assuming we got both primarily because of preferential treatment," Thomas told biographer Norman L. Macht.

Danforth, as attorney general of Missouri, initially hired Thomas in 1974 because he was looking for qualified minorities to work for him. When Thomas took the job, he made one request: He would not work on civil rights cases.

"He wanted to be competing with people and dealing with people on a whole range of issues," Danforth said.

Thomas has developed a highly methodical and disciplined approach to deciding cases. He believes that the law is a science and that standardized procedures will invariably lead to the correct outcome. He spends hours reading and studying the briefs _ often at home in the middle of the night. He says he's always thinking about cases, even while mowing the lawn.

Before every oral argument, Thomas sits down with his four clerks to discuss the cases on the docket. Sometimes, these sessions last four or five hours and become quite animated.

"His main instruction to us was that he didn't want to hear an issue or a question in oral argument that he had not already heard about or thought about himself," said Greg Coleman, who worked for Thomas in 1995 and 1996.

Thomas' clerks play a central role in his preparations. He hires only those who have clerked in the federal court system, and only those who finished in the top 10 percent of their law school class.

At the beginning of each term, Thomas gives his clerks two guidelines: They are never to bargain points of law to secure the votes of other justices, and they are never to write opinions that criticize another justice.

"Ideas are open for attack, but the people never are," Coleman said. "He would never permit a draft to come to his desk that had a disparaging remark about another justice."

In legal terms, Thomas is an originalist, meaning he believes in deciding cases based on the original meaning of the Constitution. He views the Constitution as a contract that was entered into by the framers, and he sees his role as enforcing the original terms of the bargain.

He has established himself as an ardent supporter of states' rights, and he's deeply hostile to what he perceives as the encroaching power of the federal government.

Some of his votes break the conservative stereotype. He has been one of the most liberal justices on the First Amendment, a fact often overlooked by his critics. One study found that only Justice Kennedy took a stronger stance on free speech rights, although some of these votes reflect the view that campaign contributions are a form of speech and cannot be regulated.

Life's full circle

Thomas met Virginia Lamp in 1986 while he was still chairman of the EEOC and she was a lobbyist and spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A year later they married.

It was Thomas' second marriage and her first. He has a son from his first marriage. But early on, they decided not to have children. It was an extremely difficult decision, but Thomas believed he could not be a responsible father and still fulfill his obligations at the court, according to Clifford Faddis, who has known him for nearly 30 years.

The issue of children resurfaced in 1997 when the couple hosted several of Thomas' grandnieces and nephews at their home in Fairfax Station.

They felt an immediate bond with the oldest child, a 5-year-old boy named Mark, whose family was in turmoil.

The boy's father, Thomas' nephew, had been jailed that summer for his second probation violation in two years. The charges underlying the sentence stemmed from a 1995 conviction for dealing crack cocaine.

Mark's mother, a Head Start teacher living in public housing in Savannah, was raising Mark, his two siblings and a fourth child from another relationship, having divorced Mark's father in 1995.

After the children left, Thomas and his wife wrestled with the idea of taking custody of Mark, whose biracial background mirrored their mixed-race marriage. As they grappled with the ramifications of raising a child, they worried about removing Mark from his immediate family, Faddis said. But they concluded they could offer Mark far more than he would lose.

They pitched the idea to Mark's parents as a way to provide him with a better education, suggesting they call themselves "Team Mark." Susan Martin, the boy's mother, said she cried at the thought of giving up her oldest son, but agreed that the Thomases could offer him more than she could. The boy's father also agreed to the arrangement.

In January 1998, a Savannah judge made Clarence and Virginia Thomas legal guardians of Mark, then 6.

Thomas was just a few months short of his 50th birthday that year, and friends couldn't help notice how much his life appeared to be turning full-circle. He was becoming a father figure to a boy who was the same age Thomas was when his grandfather took Thomas in.

"He wanted to return the favor," Martin said.