He most often finds himself assigned to speak for the court in cases that do not address the great issues of the day -- for example, complex regulatory matters and arcane disputes over pension benefits, taxes and bankruptcy. Cases involving economic issues accounted for 28 percent of the majority opinions Thomas wrote, while they constituted 19 percent of the cases that have come before the court during his tenure, according to an analysis of Supreme Court decisions by Cornell University's Legal Information Institute.
Thomas seems not to care. This streak of independence -- some intimates have called it stubbornness -- courses through his life. Even during his flirtation with black militancy at Holy Cross, he was the only Black Student Union member to vote against establishing an all-black dorm corridor. "He's an ornery something -- always was," said Eddie Jenkins, a Holy Cross classmate and friend.
The Supreme Court poses for a photo in December. Seated, from left: Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy. Standing: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
_____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
_____Part I of This Series_____
Narrowly Defined Image Belies Jurist's Quiet Clout (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 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)
_____Part II of This Series_____
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)
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.
Some legal observers have said that Thomas displays a rigidity in thinking that extends beyond ideology.
Former University of Southern California law professor Catharine Pierce Wells wrote more than a decade ago: "For Thomas, there are no gray areas and no mitigating factors -- one's abstract principles generate a series of categorical judgments that need never yield to a human dimension."
On the court's most important cases, Thomas's voice is most often heard not in majority opinions but in strongly worded dissents and concurrences that he believes one day will become law. It remains to be seen whether that approach will place him on the path of quirky justices whose solitary views never capture the court or in the company of a Harlan or Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. -- the latter an early champion of the legislative authority to prohibit child labor and establish a 60-hour limit on the workweek.
Legal analysts have described Thomas as the justice most willing to overturn bedrock legal standards on the grounds that they do not conform to the intent of the Constitution's framers. Thomas startled court observers in June with his concurring opinion in a case challenging the words "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The court upheld the words in the pledge, but its decision rested on a technicality. Writing alone, Thomas advanced the position that the constitutionally mandated separation applied to the federal government, but not to individual states -- a position that would allow Virginia, for example, to declare a state religion.
The 'Scalia' Slight
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist swore in Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on Oct. 23, 1991. It wasn't long before Thomas was criticized for the perceived harshness of his opinions, his silence during oral argument and his close voting alignment with Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's conservative beacon.
"I think Thomas is basically in Scalia's pocket," legal commentator Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration, observed in 1994.
That criticism extended into the circle of young law clerks who assist the justices in researching and writing opinions, according to recently released papers of the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun.
"Justice Thomas [I know this is going to be a surprise] joined Justice Scalia," a clerk wrote with obvious sarcasm in a memo to Blackmun during a 1992 case.
Thomas always has dismissed the criticism as uninformed or politically motivated, though he often raises it himself in speeches and other public appearances. He has said vigorous questioning by justices during oral arguments is inconsequential. He sees racism in the suggestion that he is an intellectual flunky to Scalia.
"People say that because I'm black, Justice Scalia does my work for me," Thomas told students at the University of Louisville in 2000. "But I rarely see him, so he must have a chip in my brain."
Thomas and Scalia vote alike to a high degree -- 92 percent of the time, which is the highest correlation between any two sitting justices, according to the Cornell analysis. But legal scholars increasingly attribute that alignment to nothing more than like-minded judicial philosophies.
"When two justices are similar in their constitutional approaches, it is not surprising they would agree," said Geoffrey Stone, a constitutional law professor at University of Chicago Law School. "Those justices who tend to have more extreme views than their colleagues, whether on the right or on the left, . . . will tend to vote together."