The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Author:Dunbar, Mark

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas


Henry Holt & Co., 2019

320 pp.; $30.00

Clarence Thomas is the most rightwing justice on the Supreme Court, and one of the most rightwing justices in the last hundred or so years. There's not an execution, abuse of power, or petty act of exploitation he won't find constitutional protection for. When the Bush administration tried stripping the legal rights of American citizens who they labeled "enemy combatants," Thomas was the only justice to side with the administration. He's argued that horrific prison conditions do not qualify as "cruel and unusual punishment," because punishment is the prison sentence imposed by judges and juries, not the prison conditions imposed by guards and wardens.

In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), Thomas went even further than his conservative colleagues, arguing that not only was political bribery constitutional but even requiring donors to disclose their donations was a violation of the First Amendment. According to the New Yorkers Jeffrey Toobin, Thomas's favorite legal opinion is the one he wrote for Norfolk & Western v. Hiles (1996), where the court unanimously ruled that a railroad company didn't owe worker compensation to an employee who injured his back while "coupling" two train stacks. Years after the court's decision, the employee was still bedridden from the injury; Thomas said he liked the opinion so much because it was "fun" to learn about "the history of trains."

In The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, Corey Robin (author of The Reactionary Mind and Fear: The History of a Political Idea) doesn't mention Thomas's favorite opinion, which at first seems odd given Robin's own socialist politics. But the purpose of Enigma is not simply to catalog Thomas's judicial and personal transgressions. Robin, for example, only mentions in passing Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations against Thomas. Rather, the purpose of Enigma is to understand the values and assumptions that underlie Thomas's conservative jurisprudence.

In politics we assume our disagreements stem from underlying values and assumptions: what one side takes for granted the other thinks is absurd. But when Robin reads through Thomas's legal opinions and public speeches, he finds not the standard noises of conservatism but the twisted echoes of radicalism. Seeing "the world through his eyes," Robin writes, we "realize, perhaps to our surprise, that his vision is in some ways similar to our own. Which should unsettle us." At times Robin seems to think this merits undergoing a political identity crisis. "When brought face-to-face with an enemy whose vision we...

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