“Every time without fail, Justice Thomas writes a separate, concise opinion to cut through the 50-year tangle of made-up tests and shifting standards and calmly reminds everybody that the whole house of cards lacks a constitutional foundation,” McConnell said to applause at the Heritage Foundation.
The conservative think tank was the site of a day-long celebration of Thomas’s three decades on the court, with panels of judges, lawyers and legal analysts celebrating the 73-year-old justice’s record.
McConnell was the keynote speaker, and he urged boldness and independence from the federal judiciary he had a large hand in reconstructing. He pushed through a record number of confirmations of federal judges when Republicans controlled the Senate and President Donald Trump was making nominations.
Included in the list are three Supreme Court justices: Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Polls have shown public approval of the Supreme Court is falling — those who say it is too conservative are growing — but McConnell said popularity is not the standard by which judges should be evaluated.
“They’re not tasked with reasoning backwards from abstract impressions about what outcome the nation supposedly needs or the court’s public standing supposedly requires,” McConnell said. “We need the rule of law, not the rule of polls.”
Thomas has provided the example, McConnell said. “For 30 years and counting, you have had the brightest possible North Star illumining the path before you, the courage and fidelity of Justice Clarence Thomas,” the senator from Kentucky said.
Thomas applauded and laughed during McConnell’s presentation but offered little more than thanks and fond remembrances when it was his turn at the microphone.
Thomas said he was grateful for the day, but embarrassed by all of the attention. “I am a 100 percent introvert,” he said. “It is an absolute joy to be able to stand here and celebrate this moment, not because of me but because of you all and what we’re trying to defend in this great country.”
Thomas is the second justice to appear with McConnell in the last two months. Barrett accompanied him to the University of Louisville for a speech at the center that bears the senator’s name in September.
“My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she said. Critics said it was not a choice setting for such a nonpartisan message.
McConnell is the politician most responsible for the change on the Supreme Court and in the federal judiciary, said Donald McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel. “He’s always had an eye on the long game,” McGahn said in introducing McConnell.
Democrats remain bitter about McConnell’s role. As Senate majority leader, he refused to allow a hearing on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court choice Merrick Garland in 2016, saying it was inappropriate in an election year. Garland was nominated to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February of that year.
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020, however, McConnell rushed through Barrett’s nomination. Barrett was confirmed by Republican senators as voters had begun casting early ballots that denied Trump a second term.
Six of the nine justices were nominated by Republican presidents.
But Thursday night, McConnell said it was Democrats who were politicizing the court. He said Democratic senators have threatened to restructure the court unless it gives them the results they want, and blasted President Biden for establishing a commission to look at the issue of Supreme Court reform. It is examining issues such as expanding the court or imposing term limits on justices, who now are appointed for life.
“My friends, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon,” McConnell told the Heritage Foundation audience.
“One of our country’s two major political movements has decided they’re fed up with trying to win the contest of ideas within the institutions the framers left us and would rather take aim at the institutions themselves,” McConnell said.