How Clarence Thomas Became the Supreme Court's Strangest Justice

The Anita Hill hearings were just the opening chapter in a long, and deeply bizarre, career.

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Apr 21 2016, 6:37pm

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas poses for a portrait in his chambers on June 18, 2002. Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

HBO's new movie Confirmation depicts the most famous chapter in the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: His 1991 confirmation to the highest court, and specifically the political circus surrounding the Senate testimony of a law professor named Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexually harassing her during the time that she worked as his employee.

The movie dramatizes what was already one of the more lurid tabloid dramas in televised politics. In public testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill, played by Kerry Washington in HBO's rendering, details Thomas' sexual overtures, his graphic descriptions of porn—including the work of someone called "Long Dong Silver," and his apparently unprovoked remark about finding pubes on his can of Coke. Wendall Pierce, as Thomas, remains an enigma throughout, appearing alternately anguished and nonplussed by Hill's accusations. In the end, the hearings are cut short, and Thomas is narrowly confirmed to the bench.

The whole thing was a lurid spectacle, shameful even by the standards of Washington show trials. But it was also, in hindsight, a fittingly bizarre start to the long and deeply weird career of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Twenty-five years after the events depicted in Confirmation, Thomas remains an enigma—a taciturn and deeply conservative jurist with a deeply bizarre streak—bizarre both on the bench, and in his personal life. Below is an abridged guide to how strange things have gotten

Wendell Pierce plays Clarence Thomas in the new HBO feature "Confirmation." Image courtesy of HBO

HE DIDN'T ASK ANY QUESTIONS IN COURT FOR TEN YEARS

On February 29 of this year—just 16 days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative stalwart on the bench—Thomas and the other justices heard oral arguments in Voisine v. United States, a case about guns and domestic violence. And something remarkable occurred: Thomas suddenly blurted out a question.

It was the first question Thomas had asked in more than 10 years.

Thomas' silence had been the source of much speculation—and criticism—over the years. His only other utterance in the decade—a vague joke about his reviled alma mater, Yale University, made during a moment of cross-talk among the justices in 2013—sent journalists into a mild panic. According to veteran Supreme Court reporter Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, Thomas wasn't just silent during those decades; he was also known to stare at the ceiling, put his head in his hands, and look generally bored while the other justices peppered lawyers with questions during oral arguments before the court.

Thomas has occasionally offered explanations for his reticence, primarily claiming that the rapid-fire questioning practiced by modern Supreme Court justices undermine the value of oral arguments, and make it difficult to listen to the arguments being presented to the court. "I don't see how you can learn a whole lot when there are 50 questions in an hour," he told CSPAN's Susan Swain in 2009.

Recently, though, Thomas has seemed increasingly willing to jump into the fray. The Atlantic's Garrett Epps notes Thomas had a remarkably productive year in 2015, writing 36 opinions, a personal record and the most of any other justice that year.

EVEN SCALIA THOUGHT HE WAS NUTS

Thomas is far and away the most conservative justice on the bench, and has been ever since his confirmation, surpassing even the late conservative legal lion Antonin Scalia in anti-gay, small-government, tough-on-crime zeal. Like Scalia, Thomas is an originalist, with a staunch belief that the US Constitution should be interpreted based on what the framers intended when it was adopted.

But while Scalia described himself as a "fainthearted originalist," and could occasionally be swayed by shifting judicial norms, Toobin writes that "there is nothing fainthearted about Thomas's convictions about the meaning of the Constitution." Specifically, Thomas is eager to override legal precedents that don't meet his strict originalist interpretations, rejecting the principles of judicial restraint that even the court's more conservative justices have usually followed. Comparing himself to Thomas, Scalia once famously stated, "I'm a textualist. I'm an originalist. I'm not a nut."

Taken to its logical conclusion, Toobin writes, Thomas' judicial philosophy would "transform much of American government and society," overturning almost a century of progressive social policies. "By Thomas's reading," Toobin writes, "Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, to say nothing of Medicare and Medicaid, might all be unconstitutional."

HE LOVES TO IMAGINE WHAT AMERICA LOOKED LIKE IN THE 18th CENTURY

A natural consequence of this aggressive originalism is that Thomas spends quite a lot of time imagining what life might have been like in 18th century America. His dissents, particularly the ones he has written solo, tend to be fascinating and weird, eschewing traditional legal arguments for enthusiastic and lengthy historical surveys of the habits and cultural mores that might have informed the Founding Fathers.

A particularly strange example of this is his 2008 opinion in the case of Baze v. Rees, in which the majority upheld the use of the three-drug "cocktail" in lethal injections. In a concurring opinion, Thomas went further in his defense, arguing that the Eighth Amendment was written with far more torturous punishments in mind than a botched execution with intravenous drugs.

To illustrate, he detailed the grisly torture methods of yore that framers of the US Constitution may have been familiar with, like burning at the stake and "hanging the condemned in an iron cage so that his body would decompose in public view." Lethal injection, he concluded, couldn't possibly be cruel and unusual because it wasn't "deliberately designed to inflict pain," even if slow, agonizing death happens to be the end result.

HE LIKES PORN

In the quarter-century since Thomas' confirmation hearings, quite a bit of anecdotal evidence has emerged to support Hill's claim that Thomas like to watch—and talk about—porn. In their 1994 book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson detail accounts from several of Thomas' college classmates, and other acquaintances who confirm that, as a young man, Thomas was an avid viewer of pornographic films, and even pinned the pages of nudie mags to the walls of his bachelor pad.

Though Thomas refused to discuss his porn habits during the Senate hearings, he has since emerged as a surprisingly strong defender of the rights of Americans to view adult content. Whether because of his personal predilections or not , Thomas has come down on the side of pornographers from the bench, defending their constitutional right to show "indecent" programs on cable television, and voting multiple times against laws that banned minors from watching internet porn.

HIS VIEWS ON RACE ARE VERY HARD TO UNDERSTAND

Since his confirmation as the second black justice to ever sit on the Supreme Court, replacing civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall, Thomas' career has been marked by a debate over race. His famous denunciation of the Anita Hill hearings as a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves" marked the beginning of a long and complex debate over Thomas' racial views that has continued in his two decades on the high court.

At the center of the controversy is Thomas' belief that the Constitution explicitly forbids any kind of racial bias or preference. It's not that he thinks racism doesn't exist, though; as biographer Ken Foskett explains, Thomas sees any kind of preference on the basis of race is an example of what he calls "the presumption"—a systematic belief that black people are inferior. His opinions reveal a complex blending of conservative individualism and radical black nationalism, stemming from what political scientist Corey Robin describes as the belief "that racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you'll never be able to remove it."

Evidence of this can be found across Thomas' career on the bench, from his 1995 concurring opinion on the unconstitutionality of race-based affirmative action, to his votes relating to school integration, voting rights, the federal Fair Housing Act, among other cases. But perhaps the most illuminating distillation comes from his scathing, and arguably bizarre, dissent in the Supreme Court's 2014 ruling on gay marriage.

Predictably, Thomas was against the court's decision to invalidate state same-sex marriage bans—but he also takes the argument a step further, with a deeply strange riff on slavery.

"Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved," he wrote. "And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away."

HE SPENDS HIS SUMMERS IN AN RV, LOOKING FOR THE 'BEST' OF AMERICA

In Confirmation, Pierce plays Thomas as outwardly timid and nerdy, but brooding and intense in private. The Atlantic called the performance"as inscrutable as the real deal," noting that Pierce had "little to work with except rage and recrimination" in the role.

In real life, Thomas is an even more complex character, with a personality rich in contradictions. Reports have described him as shy, but also incredibly chatty and pleasant to be around, with an "ingratiatingly self-deprecating" sense of humor; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the court's most reliable liberals, has described him as the "most congenial" of her colleagues. He also occasionally cries "uncontrollably" in public.

Though he remains largely out of the public eye—and is said to detest the Washington social scene—he is deeply tied in to right-wing circles and even officiated Rush Limbaugh's third wedding. These connections are presumably facilitated, at least in part, by Thomas' wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, a Tea Party lobbyist whose Facebook page declares her "affiliation" to be "[a]dvancing liberty while limiting government and exposing corruption and manipulation."

Since 1999, Ginni and Clarence Thomas have spent their spare time looking for "the best of America," traveling the country in a 40-foot converted bus, staying in Walmart parking lots, and generally keeping to themselves.

"Clarence gets recognized every once in a while and that sort of puts a damper on things because when we're out we sort of like to be incognito," Ginni said in 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Grace Wyler is on Twitter. So is Mike Pearl.