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Clarence Thomas: The Style of a Justice

Narrowly Defined Image Belies Jurist's Quiet Clout

By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page A01

First of two articles

Brian Jones, a young, black lawyer and a rising star in Republican politics, was at Armand's in the District getting pizza for lunch when his cell phone rang.

"Don't take that job," instructed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Clarence Thomas, with first lady Barbara Bush, President George H.W. Bush, wife Ginni and Justice Byron White, is sworn in as a justice. (AP)

_____Style of a Justice_____
Photo Gallery: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has a low profile by Washington standards, but is far more engaged than he lets on.
_____Record of a Justice_____
Interactive Chart: An analysis of Thomas's record compared to other Supreme Court justices.
A Justice's Private File
Excerpts: Thomas's Legal Writings
_____More From The Post_____
Jurist Embraces Image As a Hard-Line Holdout (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Jurist Mum Come Oral Arguments (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Culling the Reputable, Reliable, Right-Leaning (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
In Sharp Divide on Judicial Partisanship, Thomas Is Exhibit A (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Thomas's Across-the-Aisle Aid Puzzles Even the Beneficiaries (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
Yale Law Lacks Portrait -- And Thomas's Goodwill (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
Thomas v. Blackmun (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
About This Series

This series of articles about Justice Clarence Thomas is the result of more than two years of reporting by Washington Post staff writers Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher. The two reporters published a Post magazine article about Thomas in August 2002. Their book on Thomas is scheduled to be published next year by Doubleday.

"What job?" asked Jones.

"You know the job I'm talking about. Don't take that job."

Reconstructing the conversation from memory, Jones recalled that Thomas was in no mood for coy. With the rancorous 2000 presidential election finally decided, the buzz was all over town, even in the Wall Street Journal, where Thomas read it and believed it: Jones, a Thomas protege since his undergraduate days at Georgetown, was in line to become assistant attorney general for civil rights. That left Thomas distressed. It was a black job, in Thomas's parlance, one that would limit Jones's upward mobility and frustrate him.

That was the route Thomas himself followed all the way to the Supreme Court -- 10 months as civil rights chief in President Ronald Reagan's Department of Education, nearly eight years as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

One "black job" after another. But now Thomas was adamantly against that path.

"What time is your interview?" Thomas asked Jones. Informed it was at 10 the next morning, Thomas told Jones to be in his chambers at 7 a.m. And there Jones was, ready for early-morning career guidance from the lone black jurist on the nation's highest court.

This is the Clarence Thomas rarely seen -- the maneuvering mentor and political adviser, a justice who's far more engaged in official Washington than he lets on. From his oak-paneled suite on the court's first floor, Thomas keeps tabs on the capital's gossip, dispenses advice to his understudies, chats up commentators -- he goes to Baltimore Orioles games with George Will -- and even phones senators to lobby for Democratic judicial nominees. Few ever know. According to several black judges interviewed by The Washington Post, Thomas has intervened or offered help on behalf of several stalled African American judicial candidates.

For him, the Supreme Court is not just the preeminent temple of law, where landmark cases are argued and momentous opinions written. It is a secluded, peaceful sanctuary in which to operate, a shield against those who would tear him down. Unlike the other branches of government from which Thomas graduated, where the cameras are always trained on officials and leaks can flow like a mighty stream, the court is Thomas's tenured escape from the wars of Washington that nearly destroyed him.

Thirteen years ago, Anita Hill's allegations that her former boss made crude, sexually explicit remarks to her riveted the nation and ignited a debate about workplace sexual harassment. Thomas denied -- and survived -- those accusations, but the wrenching confirmation battle left him humiliated, enraged, depressed. To what degree he remains angry and bitter is a contentious subject even among his friends.

What's clear is that Thomas's judicial profile has become sharper with each passing year. He has grown more defiant, less compromising -- content to reside outside the court's power center. His tenure on the court has been marked by strongly worded dissents and concurrences that prod and provoke, but that leave him on the margins of influence. And yet inside his chambers, and across the nation, he has become an effective spokesman for his ideas, displaying through personal interactions the kind of empathy not often evident in his court writings.

At 56, Thomas is the youngest justice by nine years, and he could well end up being the last survivor of the Rehnquist Court, imprinting his ideas on the legal landscape for decades. As the court begins its new term, there is growing curiosity about the justice who seems more known than understood.

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