Justice Thomas and a SCOTUS for the People

It never ceases to amaze me how observers pore over Justice Clarence Thomas’s every utterance and written word, such as in this piece over at the Atlantic today examining his theory of judicial opinion writing. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am proud to have been a clerk for Justice Thomas, early in his time on the Court (1994-1995). I’ve rarely met such an inspirational and courageous person. He leads by example as well as by the written and spoken word.

Some professors seem to have made a cottage industry out of criticizing Justice Thomas’s opinions. There was also, if one recalls, Senator Harry Reid’s claim that Justice Thomas’s opinions were poor — but then he had a hard time listing any when challenged. Now, it seems, that some think Justice Thomas’s opinions are too short or don’t use enough polysyllabic words. To be frank, I don’t recall the media swarming over any other Justice’s opinions this way, and certainly not those of Thurgood Marshall, the great black liberal justice. Could the point of contention possibly be disagreement with his views rather than a fair evaluation of his craft?

In a recent speech, Justice Thomas explained in public what he always said in private to those of us who clerked for him: He wants his opinions to be understood not by the small group of Supreme Court practitioners or law professors who specialize in the Court, but by the general public. He always said that he wanted his opinions to be something that would explain the legal dispute, precedent, and reasoning to your mother. 

To me, that is a higher standard than writing a long, jargon-filled opinion that takes 50 pages to say what could be expressed in 10. As someone once said, “I didn’t have time to write a concise letter, so I wrote this long one instead.”  But it also tells us something important about Justice Thomas — he does not think the Court should cater to a tiny elite; its actions should be understood by the people for whom the government acts in the first place.

  1. BrentB67

    I wish there were about 6 more jurists like him on the court.

  2. KC Mulville

    If ignorance of the law is no excuse, then there’s no excuse for the law being inaccessible.

  3. jarhead
    C

    Justice Thomas’s autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son:  A Memoir, is outstanding.  Unfortunately, his confirmation in the Senate, and the high-tech lynching by Senators Kennedy and Biden, will always be a black mark on the Senate.

    Just today I watched this video of Justice Thomas at Harvard Law School earlier this year.  To their credit, the students gave him a standing ovation both at the beginning and end.  Thomas talks about his law clerks and his philosophy for writing opinions in clear and understandable language.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=heQjKdHu1P4

  4. Mark

    I thought the Atlantic piece was very complimentary.  I watched the entire Harvard Law School talk by Thomas on the video and it is delightful.

  5. Eric Jablow

    The original statement was by Blaise Pascal:

    Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

    which translates as:

    I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

  6. Mike Visser
    jarhead: Justice Thomas’s autobiography,My Grandfather’s Son:  A Memoir, is outstanding.  Unfortunately, his confirmation in the Senate, and the high-tech lynching by Senators Kennedy and Biden, will always be a black mark on the Senate.

    Just today I watched this video of Justice Thomas at Harvard Law School earlier this year.  To their credit, the students gave him a standing ovation both at the beginning and end.  Thomas talks about his law clerks and his philosophy for writing opinions in clear and understandable language.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=heQjKdHu1P4 · 3 hours ago

    I watched this last night.  Its fantastic.

  7. MJBubba

    Thanks for posting about Justice Thomas.  It is good to remember how good he has been.

    I also recommend this long profile that ran in the New Yorker two years ago:  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/29/110829fa_fact_toobin?currentPage=all

  8. Ralphie

    The Constitution was written for the common man. it is short.  Most of those who represented the colonies in ratification had ordinary educations. They had to be able to  understand it back then, and it has been said we are becoming collectively dumber.

    Sometimes wisdom is simple.

  9. Rhoda at the Door

    Has there ever been a documentary film made of Thomas’s confirmation hearings?  I’d like to show it to my grandchildren when they’re grown up.  The ordeal was a ghastly melodrama, but so emblematic of our political and philosophical anguish that it could well be displayed again and again, lest we forget.  It would have to include a postscript on Thomas’s subsequent fine contribution.

  10. Devereaux
    Ralphie: The Constitution was written for the common man. it is short.  Most of those who represented the colonies in ratification had ordinary educations. They had to be able to  understand it back then, and it has been said we are becoming collectively dumber.

    Sometimes wisdom is simple. · 22 minutes ago

    Ah, but while the founders had “ordinary educations”, what educations they were! Back then they learned more in 8 grades of school than we teach in 16 today.

    Mr. Yoo, your last statement is the gunshot of the whole piece. ” But it also tells us something important about Justice Thomas — he does not think the Court should cater to a tiny elite; its actions should be understood by the people for whom the government acts in the first place.” Understood by the people for whom the government acts in the first place. What a novel idea in this day and age!

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