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Justice Thomas bows out of teaching fall seminar at GWU law school

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at a Heritage Foundation event Oct. 21, 2021, in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has canceled plans to teach a seminar this fall at George Washington University’s law school, a few weeks after the private university in the nation’s capital had defended the conservative jurist’s position on its faculty.

The GW Hatchet, a student newspaper, first reported Thomas’s withdrawal from the fall teaching assignment Wednesday, citing an email that his longtime co-teacher, Judge Gregory E. Maggs of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, sent to students enrolled in the class.

“Unfortunately, I am writing with some sad news: Justice Thomas has informed me that he is unavailable to co-teach the seminar this fall,” Maggs wrote, according to the Hatchet. “I know that this is disappointing. I am very sorry.”

The university confirmed the report. “Justice Thomas informed GW Law that he is unavailable to co-teach a Constitutional Law Seminar this fall,” a university spokesperson said. “The students were promptly informed of Justice Thomas’ decision by his co-instructor who will continue to offer the seminar this fall.”

Maggs, through an assistant, referred questions to the university. Thomas did not immediately respond to messages left with the Supreme Court’s public information office.

Thomas, on the high court for more than 30 years, has taught at the D.C. law school since 2011. His adjunct faculty position there drew controversy this summer after the court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that had established a constitutional right to abortion.

Thomas joined with the majority in the June 24 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. He also wrote a concurring opinion that the court should reconsider past rulings grounded in legal reasoning similar to what the court developed in Roe, including decisions protecting rights to same-sex marriage and access to contraception.

Afterward, thousands signed a petition that called for Thomas to be removed from the law school faculty.

University leaders resisted those demands, saying June 28 that they “steadfastly support the robust exchange of ideas and deliberation” and that “the university will neither terminate Justice Thomas’ employment nor cancel his class in response to his legal opinions.” They added that the justice’s views do not represent those of the 26,000-student university or its 1,700-student law school.

GWU defends Thomas appointment amid calls for removal from law school

Thomas’s critics celebrated news Wednesday that the justice was pulling out of his fall teaching plans.

“This is a massive victory,” Jon Kay, who helped organize the petition, said. The 20-year-old GWU junior from South Orange, N.J., who is majoring in international affairs and philosophy, said he was surprised to learn of Thomas’s withdrawal. Groups of students had been planning demonstrations in the fall, he said, on the assumption that Thomas would be teaching. “We are going to continue to work to make sure he doesn’t come back in the spring semester,” Kay said.

But one GWU law professor, Jonathan Turley, called Wednesday’s development “deeply concerning.” Turley lamented what he called a “cancel campaign” at the university.

“Justice Thomas has taught this course for many years and our students have benefited greatly from his insights and his experiences,” Turley wrote in an email. “He is known as someone who enjoys interaction with students and has often shown a great deal of interest in their careers. This is a tremendous loss for our school.”

Maggs, a former clerk for Thomas and for retired associate justice Anthony M. Kennedy, has told students the class will go forward. “The seminar has not been canceled but I will now be the sole instructor,” Maggs said in the email the Hatchet obtained. “For those of you still interested in taking the course, I assure you that we will make the best of the new situation.”

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