Since the Wisconsin budget "repair" bill stuff from Monday and Tuesday is still getting a lot of attention I'm going to be more succinct than usual today. The amount of attention Monday's post has gotten is equal parts rewarding and disturbing. I can't believe I'm the only person who bothered to, you know, open a copy of Walker's bill and read it. Not exactly Woodward and Bernstein stuff here.

Speaking of the fundamentals of journalism, CNN saw fit to commemorate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' record five years of silence during oral arguments in the most cloying way possible given the limitations of existing technology. None of the 112 men and women who have served on the highest court have managed to go a single one-year term without asking a question, yet Silent Cal (with respect to the original) has managed to do it five times consecutively.

This type of story has appeared in the mainstream media several times in the past few years, inevitably focusing on the same basic folksy themes – Thomas' silence as an artifact of his humility, intellectual seriousness, childhood racial abuse, growing up with English as a second language, and so on. Journalistic treatments of his judicial Persistent Vegetative State always tactfully avoid raising the possibility that Thomas has no judicial philosophy beyond "What Anton said" and that upon appointment he was expected to do little more than sit there, shut up, and vote as ordered.

On the topic of not-so-folksy themes that didn't find their way into this piece, Congress sure doesn't seem very interested in the revelation that Thomas lied on his tax returns – for nineteen years – to hide his wife's six-figure income from conservative interest groups like the Heritage Foundation. Or failing to recuse himself from the Citizens United case even though his wife's lobbying firm has extensive connections to Citizens United and other right-wing interest groups.

Then again, I see no reason why his wife getting paid (handsomely) to lobby against campaign finance laws would compromise Mr. Thomas' judgment on a pivotal case. He'd have to think about the case and possibly even form an opinion about it before any compromising could occur.

20 thoughts on “SILENT CAL”

  • Thomas-as-Justice has always struck me as resembling Dubya-as-President: that is, he's more interested in *having* the job than he is in *doing* the job. His appointment in the first place was the worst kind of "quota"-hire–he was chosen by racists to replace a legend of civil rights because he was that satanically singular combination of a. the right color and b. just as racist as his appointers. Quite a 'get' for the forces of evil, really.

    I've assumed that his silence exists as a combination of smug indifference ("I've got the job, but you can't make me work at it, all of you can go fuck yourselves") and a desire to disguise his intellectual vacuity. "Better to keep silent" and all that. Anita Hill did him a favor by coming forward, since his confirmation instantly turned from "Is this man qualified for the job?" (he *so* utterly was *not*, as history has shown), into "Did he hit on her or is she a vengeful nutjob?" Once *that* became the issue, all thoughts as to whether or not this asshole actually belonged on the bench went out the window. And now, there he sits, and will, for decades to come. Fuck.

    Addendum in the name of fairness: A (slightly) more nuanced portrait of him appears in Toobin's eminently readable THE NINE, in which he is shown to have a redeeming quality or two (apparently, of all Justices, he's the only one who bothers to learn the names of the cleaning staff, cafeteria servers, etc.)

    Even so: Fuck.

  • While much can be said regarding Thomas's complete and utter refusal to participate in one of the most important parts of the job he was appointed to, I don't feel I have anything constructive to add that hasn't been said by somebody before.

    But as regards his tax forms and the dubious (to use a polite euphemism) ethics of him ruling on cases that his wife has a very large financial stake in: the decision in Citizens United has already determined that our democracy is for sale, lock stock and barrel, to the highest bidder. Of course the judicial part of our democracy should be no different.

    Honestly — and by that I mean I am being completely serious — I would like to see the argument as to how outright bribery is unethical or even illegal in the face of the fact that it is perfectly legal for a faceless corporate entity to dump as much money as it pleases into a political campaign.

  • As I understand it, he didn't lie on his tax returns, he lied on his disclosure forms, which are supposed to guard against conflicts of interest. So his defenders have been put in the odd position of claiming that a conflict of interest is not that bad, as long as Uncle Sam got his share.

  • 1) When my parents sat in the gallery, they noted that he was *asleep* on the bench. The "fluff" piece asserts that, during question periods, he often will look at the ceiling. (At the same time, he tries to claim it's disrespectful to the attorneys to interrupt them and pepper them with questions.)

    2) The CNN piece claims that Scalia actually follows *his* opinions. I wonder how much truth there is, to that.

    3) I'm not legally trained. Still, lots of other jurists seem to suggest questioning is an important part of the job.

    Is that a pubic hair on your website?

  • @John:
    I guess you missed the meeting where we redefined "conflict of interest" as "economic liberty."

    It's the bitter, hilarious end of the libertarian argument: That no man is truly free without Dictatorship of the Dollar. By this logic, as long as a despot has the resources, he should be "free" to raise an army and start dictating. "Freedom" means the freedom to control and dominate, as long as you're not a public sector liberal.

    Oddly, that's probably exactly what most Randroids actually believe.

  • Monkey Business says:

    And dovetailing right in with term limits for Congress, how about a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices? We can't throw the bums out, but it would be nice to shuffle the deck every few years and not have some asshole like Rhenquist cling to the bench so he can be replaced by a president of the right party.

  • Wow, well said.

    The idea that Scalia follows Thomas's opinions assumes, as we suggested, that Thomas actually has opinions. It seems more apparent that Thomas is an empty vessel for his clerks, who are no doubt ardent young conservative ideologues. This would explain the imperviousness of many of Thomas's opinions to real world implications.

    I don't like the idea of term limits for justices, but I do think we should bar sock puppets from donning the black robes.

  • I didn't know Thomas could actually talk.

    I always thought Scalia just stuck his hand up Thomas' rear end and worked his mouth like a ventriloquist puppet.

  • Disregarding for a moment the issue of Thomas' (and, for that matter, Scalia's) understanding of either the law or the Constitution, think about this: both Thomas and Scalia have made it plain (and I suspect that Alito and Thomas would agree) that there is no question of their being prejudiced in any case, no matter what ties they may have to one side or the other. The sheer coincidence that their rulings invariably seem to fall on the side to which they have ties is therefore simply a reflection of that side's legal position. This is remarkably similar to Scalia's "originalistic" approach to Constitutional law, which seems invariably to lead him to a decision identical to that which would be taken by a naked GOP partisan. For all I know, these men are convinced that they are "colorblind" when it comes to these legal issues. Still, as my (ultra-conservative) father always drummed into me, ignore what they say; watch what they do. When it comes to Thomas, I suspect that his silense is not a reflection of any lack of understanding so much as it is a clear sign of his prejudice. He has made up his mind which way he will rule before the case is even heard, and therefore sees no reason to ask questions.
    It is not at all surprising that humans can rationalize away the most blatant personal hypocrisy; what is astounding is that so many of us still refuse to see the nakedness of the Emperor. For that matter, there's plenty of Biblical commentary on human nature which is just as relevant today as when it was first codified in oral traditions.

  • We may say that Thomas is falling down on the job for not asking questions or engaging in open discussion, but I care more about his written opinions. His views of the 14th Amendment are incredibly warped (though I admit that I agreed with his dissent on the eminent domain ruling.)

    What gets me is that some conservatives are praising Justice Thomas's silence as gravitas and brilliance. Clearly they never read "Being There."

  • @JohnR: I like the mind-already-made-up theory. Scalia, Roberts and others are likewise locked in most of the time, I suspect, and merely enjoy bullying the lawyers or playing cat-and-mouse with them. Thomas would rather snooze.

  • Michael Wells says:

    His consistent silence is sign of intellectual laziness, willful ignorance or refusal to risk embarrassment, take your pick. Although I am a lawyer, my wife, an appellate lawyer, is the expert. Appellate judges frequently ask questions at oral argument to tease out the details of the advocate's position or to challenge the weaknesses in that position. The U.S. Supreme Court has to ACCEPT review of a particular case (with the exception of a very small category of direct review cases). In other words, it has to be of sufficient importance to at least four or five of the justices for the court to hear the appeal at all. The Court is not going to hear the run-of-the-mill slip and fall case, kids. I am reminded of the saying: "Better to remain silent and have others suspect you are ignorant, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

  • Knowing that he has enough greed and deviousness in his fetid cranium to hide his wife's income constitutes the only bit of evidence available that the fucker isn't brain-dead.


  • From my understanding, there's no way to remove a supreme court justice, regardless of how obviously unethical they are. It's a shame. It would be nice to be able to change that rule, but I'm sure the current supreme court would deem it 'unconstitutional.'

  • I'm a law student, I read a lot of Supreme Ct. opinions. Thomas and Scalia diverge regularly. His opinions (although his clerks are probably writing them), are well reasoned, regardless of whether I agree with his stances or not.

  • I read the link you posted about ol' Cal. Why do the pundits got so hagiographic over anyone who sticks it to the unions in the short term, but their policies ultimately lead to a complete and utter financial collapse?

  • Thomas and Scalia diverge regularly. So they take different paths to the same conclusion. Which, in our system, doesn't amount to a warm bucket of spit.

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