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Correction to This Article
An Oct. 10 article and an accompanying graphic incorrectly reported that the late Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun had written "Wow!" next to a passage critical of Justice Clarence Thomas in a New York Times column found in Blackmun's papers. The notation was written by Blackmun's chief secretary, Wanda S. Martinson, who says she was shocked by the column's vehement tone.
Thomas v. Blackmun
Late Jurist's Papers Puncture Colleague's Portrait of a Genteel Court

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

The nine men and women who wear the black robes, which are hung in wooden lockers like uniforms, revere their institution. They speak graciously about their colleagues and laud the decorum of their reclusive workplace. The halls they walk are quiet. In fact, they see each other infrequently -- mainly during their twice-weekly conferences to review cases or when they are on the bench listening to oral arguments from October through April. Rarely even a phone call gets exchanged, even after drafts of opinions are circulated and feedback is desired. Of the communication between justices, Clarence Thomas has said facetiously: "It is usually a letter such as, 'Dear Clarence, I disagree with everything in your opinion except your name. Cheers.' "

Thomas jokes out of affection for the court and his colleagues. No justice speaks more glowingly of the court's rarefied culture than Clarence Thomas.

"Unlike so much of what we see in a contentious society, at least there, right or wrong, agree or disagree, there is the appropriate solemnity and gravitas to what we do," he told students at Ohio's Ashland University in 1999. "And in a cynical environment, we see no cynicism. Never. Not one drop."

In another speech that year, he said: "In the Supreme Court, there is no lobbying. It is always professional, warm and friendly."

But the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun's papers, released in March, puncture the image of the court as a bastion of genteel deliberation, where an unkind word is seldom spoken and lobbying to win the support of colleagues is frowned upon. Irreverence, pique and backstage political maneuvering, they are all in Blackmun's papers.

Much has been written about his papers, yet hardly anything about the portions dealing with Thomas. He and Blackmun, who retired in 1994 after 24 years on the court, served together for only three years. The papers suggest that Thomas was less than highly regarded by Blackmun, who made snide comments about his junior colleague's drafts -- "pretty bad," he noted on his copy of one. He even questioned whether Thomas had been forthcoming about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark abortion ruling, during his confirmation hearings.

Although he often was on the opposing side of Supreme Court decisions, Thomas had an affinity for Blackmun because of their shared working-class roots. In fact, in July 2001, Thomas spoke at the dedication of the Harry A. Blackmun Rotunda in the federal courthouse in St. Louis. He noted that Blackmun was "a modest but unpretentious man" who drove a blue Volkswagen Beetle and would introduce himself to suburban fast-food patrons as: "Harry, I work for the government."

In the oral history segment of Blackmun's papers, recorded in 1995, Blackmun tells interviewer Harold Koh that he didn't know anything about Thomas when he was nominated.

Blackmun was asked about Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Thomas during Thomas's confirmation hearings. Blackmun said there was "very little discussion" of that issue around the justices' conference table, where they gather in private to review cases.

Asked by Koh, now dean of Yale Law School, whether Thomas seemed bruised emotionally by the confirmation hearings when he came to the court, Blackmun responded: "I don't know how he can help but feel abused and to carry a certain bitterness in his soul through it."

Blackmun said he watched the hearings on television and was struck by Thomas's answer to questions about Roe v. Wade, which was written by Blackmun. Whether Thomas answered those questions truthfully remains a matter of contention among court observers, legal scholars and interest groups.

During his confirmation hearings, Thomas said he "cannot remember personally engaging" in discussions of the case and stated flatly to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.): "If you are asking me whether or not I have ever debated the contents of it, that answer to that is no, Senator."

Blackmun expressed surprise at Thomas's response, given that Thomas was a Yale Law School student when the Roe opinion came down. "That's your law school, Professor Koh," Blackmun told his oral history interviewer. "Surely they must have been aware of Roe against Wade up there. But it seemed a little strange to us."

The Blackmun papers include personal files on each justice containing cards, letters, notes and newspaper and magazine clippings Blackmun chose to save about his colleagues. Some of the most suggestive clues about what he thought of Thomas are in five Thomas folders. The articles and cartoons he kept on Thomas are instructive, for hardly any are flattering. Most relate to his confirmation ordeal and various other Thomas controversies, such as former federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.'s public condemnation of Thomas's jurisprudence in a 1994 lecture.

An editorial cartoon from the Orlando Sentinel pictured the nine justices with the script: "Next on the agenda is the issue of sexual harassment. Lucky for us, we have a resident expert." A 1994 Anna Quindlen column in the New York Times contained a passage bracketed in ink by Blackmun with the handwritten notation, "Wow!" The passage: "Time, they say, wounds all heels. Justice Thomas's tenure on the high court is shadowed not by Ms. Hill's charges but by his own lack of stature. The taxpayers could save on the salaries of his staff if Justice Scalia was simply given two votes."

A former Blackmun clerk, unwilling to be identified for fear of antagonizing Thomas, expressed no surprise at Blackmun's compendium on Thomas. "You're in this environment," said this former clerk, "and you have people who are working with you who are, in essence, your enemies."

Perhaps the most intriguing correspondence between Blackmun and Thomas involves one of Thomas's ideological mentors, the reclusive Thomas Sowell. A senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Sowell has been cited publicly by Thomas as "a dear friend" and among the most influential writers and thinkers in his life.

Surely Blackmun knew this when he sent Thomas a copy of a biting column Sowell had written about Blackmun's announced position against the death penalty. "If this were just a case of one vain and shallow old man whom the media have puffed up for their own ideological reasons," Sowell wrote, "it would hardly be worth noticing. But Blackmun is a tawdry symbol of what has gone so wrong in American law over the past few decades."

The column was attached to a March 4, 1994, letter sent to Blackmun by a St. Louis man who urged the justice to resign as soon as a Republican president was elected. On March 18, Blackmun forwarded the column to Thomas along with a letter taking Sowell to task. Blackmun said it was the first time he had ever heard of Sowell. "I understand that he teaches at Santa Clara," he wrote. "It is hard for me to understand why a responsible University would employ one who dispenses material of this kind."

Three days later, Thomas, who seemed embarrassed, responded to Blackmun with a handwritten note. He said he had attempted to contact Sowell, who, he noted, was actually a Hoover scholar, but that they had not yet connected. "It is upsetting to me," Thomas wrote, "to see any friend of mine cause you such distress! I will speak with him."

Attempts to interview Sowell through his office and publicist were unsuccessful. But one thing is clear: The Thomas-Sowell friendship endures.

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

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