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Justice: Still Keeping Score

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When George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, those slights still rankled. Thomas retained a special anger for the aristocratic, generally lighter-skinned blacks who had looked down on him. That scorn, believe his biographers, partially explains his jurisprudence, particularly his opposition to affirmative action, which disproportionately helps bourgeois blacks. Thomas's humiliating Senate confirmation hearings only made him more bitter.

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Thomas had served less than a year and a half on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit when Bush nominated him to replace Thurgood Marshall. He seemed headed toward a relatively easy confirmation until Anita Hill, a former colleague, accused him of talking dirty to her. Thomas responded by charging the Senate with conducting "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." The Senate, mortified, went on to confirm him. The authors suggest that Thomas still seethes at those he believes set out to humiliate him.

The controversies that swirl around Thomas, particularly those having to do with his take on race, will probably always define him more than his legal scholarship (which has been marked by a willingness to throw out precedent in pursuit of what he believes to be the Founders' intent). Thomas all but acknowledged as much in a 1998 speech before the National Bar Association in Memphis. He denounced blind racial loyalty, even as he confessed that he was pained "to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm." But Thomas said that he had no intention of changing his ways. He defiantly asserted "my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I'm black."

It was a performance remarkable for its candor and its passion, and it provides a sense of the fascinating book Merida and Fletcher could have written had they persuaded Thomas to open up. But he refused to participate. Nonetheless, the portrait that emerges is nuanced and compelling. It will surprise some to learn that Thomas likes to relax by driving around the country (anonymously) in an RV, and that he can be refreshingly open-minded, lobbying legislators on behalf of black Democratic judicial nominees. Yet if Merida and Fletcher are to be believed, there is a tragic quality to Thomas, who "wears his blackness like a heavy robe that both ennobles and burdens him." And they question whether, despite his yearning to be free, he can ever lay that burden down.

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