Today in 1991: Clarence Thomas narrowly confirmed to Supreme Court

October 15, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryBy a vote of 52-48, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court on this day in 1991.

The confirmation hearings opened on September 10 and were contentious even before they began. In the words of John Sununu (President George Bush’s chief of staff), conservative senators had girded themselves for a “knock-down, drag-out, bloody-knuckles, grass-roots fight,” and liberal interest groups were also ready to rumble.

Toward the end of the hearings, Thomas’s foes dropped a bombshell. Anita Hill, a law professor who had worked with Thomas at two government agencies during the early 1980s, was called to testify before the Senate regarding allegations of sexual harassment by the nominee when the two worked together.

Clarence Thomas on C-SPAN during Supreme Court confirmation hearing, 1991Clarence Thomas bitterly denied Anita Hill’s allegations, and in the end, 52 senators gave him the benefit of the doubt – the narrowest margin of victory for a Supreme Court justice in over 100 years.

Thomas was born in a poor black community in Georgia in 1948 and moved in with his grandparents when he was seven years old, which marked the first time he lived in a house with an indoor toilet. With support from his grandfather, he received a top-notch education. He graduated from Yale Law School and went to work as assistant attorney general for Missouri in 1974.

Thomas has always insisted that he earned his way up and out of grinding poverty and that no opportunity was ever handed to him because of his race. This conviction lies at the core of his conservative belief system, which includes a deep disdain for affirmative action.

His conservative views got him noticed within the national Republican Party, and during the Reagan years (1981-89), he quickly advanced to the top post at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, ultimately, a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bush on July 1, 1991, after serving just 15 months on the appellate court.

The judicial philosophy of Clarence Thomas proved to be a sharp departure from that of his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, the only other African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. During his first several years on the bench, Associate Justice Thomas voted in lock step with Chief Justice William Rehnquist. However, he sometimes wrote his own concurring opinions with a greater emphasis on originalism – the theory that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the intent of those who drafted and adopted it.

“Clarence Thomas doesn’t believe in stare decisis, period,” fellow Justice Antonin Scalia once said.” If a constitutional line of authority is wrong, he would say, let’s get it right.”

Thomas’s originalist interpretations of high court decisions have struck a chord with the conservative right, and a 2006 Rasmussen poll found his favorable rating at 48 percent – higher than any other Supreme Court justice at the time.