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

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.

"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.

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