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Thomas’ race hit on Obama is no surprise

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Thomas’ race hit on Obama is no surprise

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did the seemingly impossible — he turned from court mute to a hit man on President Obama.

In an interview at Duquesne University Law School in April, Thomas rapped Obama for being the darling of the “elites.” To Thomas that means liberals, progressives, intellectuals and the supposedly liberal media.

Thomas punctuated his slam of Obama by plopping the race card in the indictment, saying that these “elites” embraced him because he was their kind of black man, presumably in distinction to Thomas. This was a play on the tired conservative charge that liberal whites are so guilt-ridden on race that they’ll latch on to a black to salve their conscience.

This stunning turnabout for a jurist who brags that he doesn’t say a word on the bench, and not much else in public, is not really a surprise. Race has always lurked just below the surface in Thomas’ calculus.

When the birther issue took flight for a hot minute a few years ago, Thomas was anything but silent. He took the almost unheard-of step of reopening the issue by agreeing to put the matter to a conference vote of the judges. Thomas’ ridiculous lone wolf effort to arm-twist the justices to examine the birth certificate issue made no sense to most legal experts.

But it fit in perfectly with his jaundiced interpretation of law and its practice and his private vow to get revenge on his liberal and especially black tormentors. Obama was the perfect target. When Obama was asked at a joint church gathering with Republican rival John McCain during the 2008 campaign which justice he wouldn’t have nominated to the Supreme Court, he didn’t hesitate. He named Thomas. And he explained why: “I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time, for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of a lot of the Constitution.”

Even if Obama hadn’t ripped Thomas publicly, he still would have been in his sights. He is the polar opposite of Thomas. He’s a moderate Democrat, a former civil rights attorney and community organizer. He backs expanded government, affirmative action, abortion rights, a severely restricted use of the death penalty, and to the absolute horror of Thomas and hard-line conservatives, a broader interpretation of legal precepts.

Obama almost certainly would have joined the swollen chorus of civil rights and civil liberties groups that pounded Thomas during his High Court confirmation fight in 1991 for his anti-affirmative action, anti-abortion and anti-prisoner rights views. The Senate confirmed him by the narrowest vote of any high court judge in recent confirmation history.

The rebuke stung deeply, and Thomas didn’t forgive or forget. In an American Enterprise Institute lecture in 2001, he wrapped himself in the martyr’s garment and said that he expected to be treated badly for challenging liberal opinions.

When asked how long he’d stay on the court, he reportedly said that he’d stay there for the next 43 years of his life. He was 43 at the time. In a more revealing aside, he supposedly quipped to friends that it would take him that long to get even. Whether this was hyperbole or an apocryphal tale, it hasn’t taken him 43 years to wreak his revenge.

Thomas has been a one-man wrecking crew in expunging race from law and public policy decisions. But this is not simply one man’s personal bitterness over his alleged mistreatment by liberals and civil rights leaders. Nor is it a case of Thomas digging his heels in to push his retrograde view on legal matters. He wants more judges to think and act like him on the bench.

Obama has made it clear that he would not appoint another Thomas to the High Court. Obama has also made it clear that the type of judges he’d appoint will be the diametric opposite of Thomas. There’s a good chance that he will have that chance, maybe two or three chances.

The court’s liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, and the moderate to conservative Anthony Kennedy are in their 70s. Obama will plausibly pick like-minded judges to replace one or more of them. This will decisively thwart Thomas and the conservative’s on the court’s counter-revolution.

Thomas’ sudden discovery of his voice on Obama and the tie-in to race was a salvo and a warning that Thomas will play dirty whenever he can, on race, to thwart and hector Obama. His hit on Obama wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.