Justice Thomas's Life A Tangle of Poverty, Privilege and Race

By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Drugs have been a persistent problem in Pin Point, Ga., a tiny rural settlement best known as the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Neighborhood leaders tried everything to chase the scourge away -- a march, a warning sign along the main drag, even a pilgrimage by the local church congregation, which prayed for and sang hymns to the dealers one Sunday morning.

"The guys who were on the corner just walked away," said Bishop Thomas J. Sills, the pastor at Sweet Field of Eden Baptist Church. But they didn't stay gone.

One of the local dealers was Clarence Thomas's nephew. Until his 30-year prison sentence began in 1999, Mark Elliot Martin, the son of Thomas's sister, had been part of Pin Point's drug problem. He had been in and out of trouble, and in and out of jail -- at least 12 arrests, according to court records. In 1997, the year Martin was convicted of pointing a pistol at another person, Thomas assumed custody of his nephew's son, with the nephew's permission. Mark Elliot Martin Jr. -- "Marky," they called him -- was a precocious, curly-haired 6-year-old. The justice promised to give Mark what Thomas's grandfather had given him at the same age -- opportunities to succeed beyond what the boy had in Pin Point.

Thomas's intervention in this family crisis reflects a side of him not widely known. As arguably the most powerful African American in public life, he labors under expectations that none of his fellow justices face. Even as Thomas goes about his work, perhaps the purest conservative on the high court, it is his racial identity that shadows him. For 16 years, there have been questions: Would he be on the court if he were not black? Would his silence at oral arguments cast doubt on his intellect if he were not black? Would he be the subject of such public scrutiny if he were not a black conservative?

Ever since Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall in 1991, many have struggled to reconcile who he is today with where he began -- as the Jim Crow-era child of deprivation in Pin Point, a boy whose family insulated its shack with newspapers and shared an outhouse with neighbors.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, remembers sitting across from Thomas at lunch once with a quizzical expression on her face. Jackson, who is black, said Thomas "spoke the language," meaning he reminded her of the black men she knew. "But I just sat there the whole time thinking: 'I don't understand you. You sound like my parents. You sound like the people I grew up with.' But the lessons he tended to draw from the experiences of the segregated South seemed to be different than those of everybody I know."

For Thomas, those experiences begin in Pin Point with a family that has faced society's most difficult social challenges: poverty, illiteracy, divorce, child abandonment, drugs, crime, imprisonment. At times, Thomas has found these problems almost too much to bear. This account is based on interviews with friends, family members and acquaintances of Thomas, as well as court records in Georgia. The justice turned down repeated requests for an interview.

When he began raising Mark -- Thomas has one adult son from a previous marriage -- he altered his Supreme Court schedule. He sent Mark to private schools, gave him extra homework to improve his math and reading, taught him to dribble with his left hand. And Mark responded. He excelled in school, became a Harry Potter fan and took up golf, and as a teenager he is comfortable around some of the most brilliant legal minds in the country.

A Blow to the Family

Mark's father was another story. Thomas had tried desperately to reach him, without success. Though Martin was good with his hands and worked for a time repairing piers at a marina near Pin Point, he injured himself and lost that job. And because he was illiterate, according to his attorney, he had little means of supporting himself. He was on probation and out of work when his luck turned worse.

On Aug. 19, 1998, 13 suspects -- all from Pin Point or nearby Sandfly -- were arrested by authorities in a 6 a.m. raid and charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. More warrants and arrests followed. And soon everyone in Pin Point had an immediate family member, distant cousin or close friend brought down by "Operation Pin Drop," as the 20-month undercover drug investigation was called.

Martin was convicted of selling 17.2 grams of cocaine to a government informant in two transactions. The informant turned out to be Martin's own cousin, Rufus Anderson, a recovering crack addict who was a key figure in the sting. Martin's defense was entrapment. The arrests divided the community and created lingering tension within Thomas's family about the impact of the justice's legal decisions on poor African Americans like his nephew.

When the drug bust went down, Thomas was so disappointed that he offered no legal advice, no pep talk, nothing. Thomas's mother said he had tried in vain to help his nephew many times. " 'Mark, please, you got them pretty little kids. Please,' " she recalled her son pleading. But Thomas couldn't get through, and now he really was through.

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