washingtonpost.com
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.

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.

This two-part series explores Thomas's place on the court -- the style of the man and the substance of his work. It is based on a review of his written opinions and public speeches, and on interviews by The Post with 40 former law clerks and other court employees, plus legal scholars and dozens of Thomas friends and acquaintances. In addition, reporters examined the papers of the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun, whose files provide the first contemporaneous, behind-the-scenes look at the court during Thomas's tenure. Thomas himself declined repeated requests to be interviewed by The Post.

Supreme Court justices, for all their power and prominence, are not especially well-known. A recent Post survey of 1,007 respondents showed that Thomas remained largely unknown to about half of those polled.

But he exercises influence that goes beyond his work on the bench. Take the example of U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts of Michigan. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton in June 1997 but didn't get a Senate hearing until a year later. After a mutual friend arranged a Roberts-Thomas meeting in his chambers, it was a smooth ride for her. After her hearing, a Republican counsel to the Judiciary Committee approached Roberts, as she recalls, and said: "We've heard from Justice Thomas, and you won't have any more trouble."

Thomas also aided Eric Clay, a Yale Law School classmate whose nomination to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was held up by the Senate's Republican majority for more than a year before he was confirmed in fall 1997. And in a 1998 conversation in his chambers, Thomas told Memphis Judge D'Army Bailey that he would have been willing to fight for Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie L. White if only he had been asked. White's nomination for a federal judgeship ultimately was killed by Republicans, led by then-Sen. John D. Ashcroft (Mo.), a longtime Thomas friend.

Thomas is hardly a stranger in the Senate. He can be spotted in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria, eating the hot buffet lunch with his clerks. He is chummy with the women who cook and waitress. He has breakfasted among senators in their private dining room, just a whisper away from some of the lawmakers who virulently opposed his nomination. Who would have imagined that the U.S. Senate, the stage for Thomas's "high-tech lynching," as he angrily charged during his 1991 confirmation hearings, is where he enjoys meals?

A Man of Many Dualities

The contours of Thomas's biography are fairly well known. He was born in Pin Point, Ga., a tiny rural settlement that has an 80 percent poverty rate. A fire destroyed the Thomas home and he wound up in Savannah with his grandfather, who offered him a stern hand and a Catholic school education during the Jim Crow era. Thomas graduated from Holy Cross College and Yale Law School, and in no time found himself on an express train punching the tickets of government service. In 12 years, he went from a junior staffer for then-Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) to Supreme Court justice.

A close inspection of Thomas's life sooner or later leads to a conundrum. Why does a man who repeatedly cites racism as the reason he left the seminary return to that same seminary 30 years later and speak warmly of "a connection that I've always thought I had with the institution"? Why does a man who complained of being treated as a token by Reagan administration officials stay in that administration long enough to become the longest-serving EEOC chairman in history? Why does a man who implores people not to become victims -- "We've got to stop whining and get up and go do it" -- so often cast himself as a victim?

"It is hard to be disliked," he said at a 1998 conference of black conservatives in Washington. "It is hard to walk into a room and know you're going to always be beaten up."

For Thomas, it is possible to live on both sides of the same coin. On one side, he relishes his privacy -- if only he could take a helicopter to work, he told one court visitor, he would live even farther out than his secluded Fairfax Station home, some 24 miles from Capitol Hill. Flip the coin and he becomes remarkably revealing to anyone invited to listen.

Thomas is perhaps the court's most accessible justice -- except to journalists seeking on-the-record interviews and to people he perceives as closed to his views. He is known to spot a group of schoolchildren visiting the court and invite the students to his chambers. Students from his alma mater, family members of former clerks, people he encounters on his drives across the country in his 40-foot Prevost motor coach -- all are welcome.

Thomas met Earl Dixon as the justice was getting his RV serviced at a Marathon Coach facility in April 2001 in San Antonio, Fla. Dixon was there holding a meeting as president of the Marathon Coach Club, a group of RV enthusiasts. The men exchanged phone numbers. Thomas called weeks later to say he was returning to north-central Florida in his RV.

Dixon, owner of a pest-control company and a former Florida state legislator, invited Thomas to park his coach at the Big River RV park in Welaka. That night they grilled catfish, swapped stories of "growing up hard" in the South, as Dixon puts it, and watched the NBA Playoffs. And that's how a chance encounter blossomed into a close friendship. Now, Dixon said, they talk "pretty frequently," and Thomas even hosted a dinner for Dixon's Marathon Coach club at the Supreme Court.

According to Thomas's 2002 financial disclosure report, Dixon and his wife, Louise, made a $5,000 "education gift" to Mark Martin, Thomas's 13-year-old great-nephew, whom he and his wife, Ginni, have been raising as a son. Thomas assumed custody of the boy a little more than a year before Mark's father -- the son of Thomas's sister -- was sentenced in 1999 to 30 years in prison for trafficking in crack cocaine.

By taking over Mark's upbringing, Thomas replicated what his late grandfather Myers Anderson did for him. The experience also invigorated him.

"It seemed like it turned back the clock 10 years on his life," observed Stephen F. Smith, a former Thomas law clerk.

After meeting Thomas and Mark in Florida, Dixon wanted to help. "I don't know what the justice's salary is, but I know how expensive schooling is and I have the means and I really wanted to see a young man like Marky succeed," he said.

Associate justices make $194,300 annually, but Thomas never has been among the wealthiest of his colleagues. In fact, he said he still had outstanding student loans when he took his seat on the court in 1991. At first, Thomas was worried about the propriety of the $5,000 donation, Dixon recalls, but he agreed to accept the contribution if it was deposited directly into a special trust for Mark.

The justice wrote Dixon a long thank-you note.

Thomas seems to have an unquenchable thirst for conversation, a need to unburden himself. No meeting with him is short. Visitors are ushered into his chambers' carpeted inner office and seated on his leather sofa. On the walls hang framed photos of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Winston Churchill. Resting atop a bookcase is a bronze bust of his grandpa, the most influential person in Thomas's life.

A planned 15-minute drop-by invariably turns into an hour, then two, sometimes three, maybe even four, according to interviews with at least a dozen people who have visited with Thomas in his chambers. James C. Duff, former administrative assistant to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, brought his parents to Thomas's chambers for a quick introduction, and nearly three hours later they were still there, the justice engrossed in their yarns about growing up in a poor county in rural Kentucky. "I wish I could've recorded it," Duff said. "Time just flew by. We were so grateful."

Not everyone gets the Duff treatment. Thomas retains a special animus for certain civil rights activists and liberal interest groups such as People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice. He blames them, in large part, for the damage done to his reputation. "These people are mad because I'm in Thurgood Marshall's seat," he told one visitor.

A Thomas friend who talks frequently with the justice said Thomas keeps a list in his head of who was for and against him during his confirmation hearings. "It hurt him a lot, I'll tell you," said this friend, who would speak only if not named to preserve his relationship. "And he's still bitter."

The sessions in Thomas's chambers often surprise those not anticipating such candor from a justice. Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein, whose firm devotes itself primarily to Supreme Court litigation, has met all the justices and has declared Thomas "the most real person" of them all.

In July 1997, Goldstein stopped by to visit a friend who was clerking for the justice and ended up having a two-hour conservation with Thomas. They talked about education. And talked about the importance of raising children to have exemplary character. And talked about Thomas's judicial philosophy.

"The public image of him and the sense you come away with in a one-on-one conversation couldn't be more different," Goldstein said. "And this is from someone who is not a fan of his ideology or jurisprudence. But I am a fan of him personally."

A Schoolboy Unbroken

Thomas's presentation of his life often includes his high school yearbook, old family photos and, perhaps most significant, a faded yellow statuette of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes. "That's what they called me," Thomas has said in public speeches, "a lost cause."

Thomas won the statuette nearly 40 years ago in a Latin bee at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, the high school run by the Diocese of Savannah for young men considering the priesthood.

He loves to tell visitors his St. Jude story: Someone among his white fellow seminarians broke the head off his statuette in the open dormitory, leaving the head next to the body on his bureau. (That wasn't the only incident. Once, a fellow student shouted after the lights went out: "Smile, Clarence, so we can see you." The worst part, Thomas has said, is that no one told the guy to shut up.) The broken statuette he glued back together. And when they broke it again, he used thicker glue. They got the message -- he, Clarence Thomas, could not be broken.

A former clerk for another justice recalls Thomas thumbing through his St. John yearbook to point out that he was the only black student in his graduating class. The school and its students had treated him paternalistically, he grumbled. Thomas "was emoting," said the former clerk, who spoke only on the condition she not be identified. "He felt he had to explain himself."

Thomas went on to discuss his experience at Yale Law School, and how he felt rejected by the "pretty people," the bourgeois blacks. "I was left thinking he feels incredibly uncomfortable in his skin," the former clerk said. "It was almost like a person who didn't feel attractive, who didn't feel accepted."

During a small reception at the court this year, it was clear how important leisure time is to his spirit. He gushed about the 65-inch TV he purchased with a portion of the reported $1.5 million advance he is receiving from HarperCollins for a memoir he is writing. But, Thomas noted to a guest, he hadn't signed up for TiVo because that's one way "Big Brother" can intrude on your life. At the time, college basketball was on his mind. He had just returned from visiting Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, a good friend. One reason they get along so well, he told this guest, is their shared distrust of the media.

Thomas is also wary of Congress and the executive branch, even though he spent nearly 11 years in those institutions. Thomas is no fan of the infighting and game-playing. This is the message Thomas wanted to communicate to Brian Jones when he summoned his protege to his chambers that day in 2000 and warned him about taking a civil rights job at Justice.

"You take that job, you end up fighting for your life every day," said Thomas, adding: "Do you want to wake up every day and fight the [interest] groups?"

Still, Thomas had catapulted to the Supreme Court with a résumé of notable "black jobs." So how could it be career suicide for Jones? "You don't have to do that," Thomas told Jones. "My generation had to do that."

As it turned out, Jones wasn't offered any job at Justice. He did, however, later accept the general counsel's post at the U.S. Department of Education, overseeing a staff of 85 attorneys. And that's exactly the kind of job Clarence Thomas wanted for him all along.

Research editor Margot Williams and researcher John Imbriglia contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company