Biography of Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is a U.S. Supreme Court justice known for his conservative/libertarian leanings and for being the second Black person in history to serve on the Supreme Court. He consistently takes politically right-wing positions, strongly supports states' rights, and employs strict constructivism when interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Thomas is unafraid of voicing his dissent with the majority, even when doing so makes him politically unpopular.

Fast Facts: Clarence Thomas

  • Known For: Conservative Supreme Court justice, second Black person to serve on the Court (as of March 2021)
  • Born: June 23, 1948, in Pin Point, Georgia
  • Parents: M. C. Thomas and Leola Williams
  • Education: College of the Holy Cross (B.A.), Yale Law School (J.D.)
  • Published Works:  "My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir" (2007)
  • Spouses: Kathy Ambush ​(m. 1971–1984)​, Virginia Lamp ​(m. 1987)
  • Child: Jamal Adeen Thomas
  • Notable Quote: “I don't think that government has a role in telling people how to live their lives. Maybe a minister does, maybe your belief in God does, maybe there's another set of moral codes, but I don't think government has a role.”

Early Life

Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, in the small town of Pin Point, Georgia, the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas and Leola Williams. Thomas was abandoned by his father at the age of two and left to the care of his mother, who raised him as a Roman Catholic. When he was seven, Thomas's mother remarried and sent him and his younger brother to live with his grandfather. At his grandfather's request, Thomas left his all-Black high school to attend seminary school, where he was the only Black student on campus. Despite experiencing extensive racism, Thomas graduated with honors.

Formative Years

Thomas had considered becoming a priest, which was one reason he chose to attend St. John Vianney's Minor Seminary in Savannah, where he was one of just four Black students. Thomas was still on track to be a priest when he attended Conception Seminary College, but he left after hearing a student utter a racist comment in response to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thomas transferred to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he founded the Black Student Union. After graduation, Thomas failed a military medical exam and this excluded him from the draft. He then enrolled in Yale Law School.

Early Career

After graduating from law school, Thomas found it difficult to obtain a job. Many employers falsely believed that he received his law degree due only to affirmative action programs. Nevertheless, Thomas landed a job as an assistant U.S. attorney for Missouri under John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate, Thomas worked as a private attorney for an agriculture firm from 1976 to 1979. In 1979, he returned to work for Danforth as his legislative assistant. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981, he offered Thomas a job as assistant secretary of education in the Office of Civil Rights. Thomas accepted.

Political Life

On May 6, 1982, Thomas accepted a position as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a post he held until March 12, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. In his autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," Thomas said he inherited an agency that was in disarray, mismanaged, and in deep trouble. He said he worked to bolster the management at the agency and that litigation cases filed by the EEOC involving discriminatory employment practices greatly increased under his tenure.

The Washington Post noted that "EEOC litigation volume grew threefold from the early to the late 1980s." Critics argued Thomas did not do enough to fight discriminatory personnel practices while he was chairman. For example, Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice said: “As chairman of the EEOC, Clarence Thomas failed to demonstrate a commitment to civil rights and liberties." And Douglas Frantz of the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991, "Thomas’ personal view that racial quotas and affirmative-action programs patronize [Black Americans] shaped his governing of the EEOC. His philosophy led to clashes with Congress and special interest groups."

Supreme Court Nomination

Less than a year after Thomas was appointed to the appeals court, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—the nation's first Black Supreme Court justice—announced his retirement. Bush, impressed with Thomas' conservative positions, nominated him to fill the position. Facing a Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee and the wrath of civil rights groups, Thomas faced stiff opposition. Recalling how conservative Judge Robert Bork had doomed his nomination by providing detailed answers at his confirmation hearings, Thomas was hesitant to give lengthy responses to interrogators.

Anita Hill Case

Just before the end of his hearings, an FBI investigation was leaked to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding sexual harassment allegations leveled at Thomas by former EEOC staff worker Anita Hill. Hill was aggressively questioned by the committee and offered shocking details of Thomas' alleged sexual misconduct. Hill was the only witness to testify against Thomas, although another staffer offered similar allegations in a written statement. 

Although Hill's testimony had transfixed the nation, preempted soap operas, and competed for airtime with the World Series, Thomas never lost his composure, maintaining his innocence throughout the proceedings, yet expressing his outrage at the "circus" the hearings had become. In the end, the judiciary committee was deadlocked at 7-7, and the confirmation was sent to the full Senate for a floor vote with no recommendation being made. Thomas was confirmed 52–48 along party lines in one of the narrowest margins in Supreme Court history.

Service to the Court

Once his nomination was secured and he took his seat on the High Court, Thomas quickly asserted himself as a conservative justice. Aligned initially with conservative justices—the late William Rehnquist and the late Antonin Scalia—and subsequently with conservative justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts, Thomas is still seen as the most conservative member of the Court. He has offered lone dissenting opinions and been the sole conservative voice on the Court at times.

Sources

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hawkins, Marcus. "Biography of Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo, May. 11, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-clarence-thomas-3303419. Hawkins, Marcus. (2021, May 11). Biography of Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-clarence-thomas-3303419 Hawkins, Marcus. "Biography of Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-profile-of-clarence-thomas-3303419 (accessed August 2, 2021).