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Clarence Thomas

In 1991, President George Bush named Clarence Thomas, the second African American in history, to the United States Supreme Court.

Despite an uncertain childhood and controversy that surrounded him leading up to his Supreme Court appointment, Thomas has become one of the most recognized, conservative judges in American history.


Uncertain Beginnings

Clarence Thomas was born on June 23rd, 1948 in a small, African American community in Pin Point, Georgia, just south of Savannah.

His father left his family when he was only two-years-old. After a house fire left them homeless, Thomas and his younger brother Myers were taken to Savannah, while their mother worked as a domestic employee. Their sister Emma stayed behind and lived with relatives in Pin Point.

When Thomas was seven-years-old, the family moved in with his grandfather, Myers Anderson, in Savannah. Despite a less than a third-grade education, Anderson had his own fuel oil business, which also sold ice. His grandfather played a pivotal role in defining hard work and sacrifice to Thomas at an early age.

School Years

Thomas was the only black person at his high school in Savannah where he was an honors student. He excelled in his studies, despite the episodes of racism he encountered.

Still he preserved and went on to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

At Holy Cross, Thomas helped found the Black Student Union. He graduated in 1971 with an A.B., cum laude in English.

Thomas then attended Yale Law School from which he received a Juris Doctor Degree in 1974.

Private Life

Thomas has one child, Jamal Adeen, from his first marriage. This marriage, to college sweetheart Kathy Grace Ambush, lasted from 1971, until their 1981 separation and 1984 divorce. Thomas married Virginia Lamp in 1987.

Since joining the Supreme Court, Thomas requested an annulment of his first marriage from the Roman Catholic Church, which was granted by the Tribunal of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

Professional Highlights

Early Years

From 1974 to 1977, Thomas was an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri under then State Attorney General John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 to 1979, Thomas left to become an attorney with Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri.

He moved to Washington, D.C. and returned to work for Danforth from 1979 to 1981 as a Legislative Assistant. Both men shared a common bond in that both had studied to be ordained, although Thomas was Roman Catholic and Danforth was ordained Episcopalian. Danforth was to be instrumental in championing Thomas for the Supreme Court.

In 1981, he joined the Reagan administration. From 1981 to 1982, he served as Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. From 1982 to 1990 he was Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Appointed Federal Judge

In June 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, despite Thomas's initial protestations that he would not like to be a judge.

Thomas gained the support of other African-Americans such as former Transportation Secretary William Coleman.

Thomas's confirmation hearing was uneventful, but he developed warm relationships during his time at the federal court, including fellow Federal Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Appointed to Supreme Court

When Justice William Brennan stepped down in 1990, Bush wanted to nominate Thomas as Brennan's replacement; he felt that replacing Marshall with Thomas could imply that Thomas received the appointment out of tokenism.

However, he decided that Thomas had not yet had enough experience as a judge after only months on the federal bench. Bush therefore nominated New Hampshire Supreme Court Judge David Souter instead.

On July 1st, 1991 President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall, who had recently announced his retirement. Marshall had been the only African-American justice on the court.

President Bush said that Thomas was the "best qualified [nominee] at this time." The American Bar Association's rating for Judge Thomas was split between "qualified" and "not qualified." Thomas had never argued a case in the high courts, though others had been appointed without Supreme Court experience.

Organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Organization for Women opposed the appointment based on Thomas's criticism of affirmative action and suspicions that Thomas might not be a supporter of the Supreme Court judgment in Roe v. Wade; NOW and the NAACP had also protested Bush's previous Court appointee, David Souter. Under questioning during confirmation hearings, Thomas repeatedly asserted that he had not formulated a position on the Roe decision.

Clarence Thomas's formal confirmation hearings began on September 10th, 1991. Because of Thomas's relative inexperience in judging at the time, with only 15 months on the bench, he was reticent when answering senators' questions during the appointment process.

On Friday, September 27th, the Judiciary Committee split 7–7 on Thomas, and his nomination went to the full Senate for voting.

Sexual Harassment Allegations Surface

A few days before a full Senate vote was scheduled, information was leaked to the press from an FBI interview with Anita Hill, an attorney who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the EEOC from 1981-1983.

In the FBI interview with Judge Thomas, Thomas denied allegations of his harassment of Hill; as to the issue of whether Hill could have any ulterior motive to slander Thomas, he advised he had once promoted Allyson Duncan over Hill as his chief of staff, and Hill held different political views.

On October 11th, 1991, Hill was called to testify during the re-opened Senate confirmation hearings. Hill did not provide detailed descriptions in her original statements to the FBI, but later testified at the Senate hearing. CLICK HERE to read those statements in full.

Hill was the only person to testify at the Senate hearings that Thomas had harassed her or engaged in inappropriate conduct.

Angela Wright, who worked with Thomas at the EEOC before he fired her for impropriety, told staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an interview that Thomas had repeatedly made comments to her, much like those Hill says he made to her, including pressuring her for dates and commenting on her body.

Another former Thomas assistant, Sukari Hardnett, wrote a letter about Thomas to the Senate committee. Although Hardnett made it clear she was not accusing Thomas of sexual harassment, she told the Judiciary Committee that "if you were young, black, female, [and] reasonably attractive and worked directly for Clarence Thomas, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female."

Thomas denied all allegations of sexual harassment and sexual impropriety by Hill and the others.


Confirmation

After extensive debate, and because there was no concrete evidence proving or disproving Hill’s testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the nomination to the full Senate.

With a 52-48 vote, Thomas was confirmed by the Senate, on October 15th, 1991. It was the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century.

Forty-one Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to confirm Thomas, while 46 Democrats and two Republicans voted to reject his nomination.

On October 23rd, 1991, Thomas was sworn in as the 106th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Learn more:

  • Writings by Justice Thomas
  • My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir - By Clarence Thomas
  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • Time: She Said, He Said - A Look Inside the Hill-Thomas Hearings

    References:

  • The New Georgia Encyclopedia
  • The Oyez Project: Clarence Thomas
  • Wikipedia: Clarence Thomas

    Images:
    Wikipedia Commons

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