Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas took his seat on the far end of the bench in 1991 feeling — he once said — “beat up” by the workload. A bitter confirmation battle marked by allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill was over, but liberals still lamented the fact that a 43-year-old conservative would take the place of retired civil rights icon Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Flash forward to 2021 and the most momentous term in recent history. The justices are poised to decide a major abortion case as well as broaden gun rights in a dispute out of New York. Thomas, now 73, sits next to Chief Justice John Roberts in a chair reserved, in this instance, not only for the longest-serving member of the court, but for a Justice who finds himself at the center of a conservative judicial movement, lauded for 30 years’ worth of writing that has become, for some, currency for the future.
Since 2017, three new colleagues, perhaps swayed in their views by Thomas’ many opinions, have joined the bench. And Thomas, taking advantage of a revised oral argument format, has broken his historic silence and has launched the first question at every oral argument so far this term. Meanwhile, he has amassed more than 100 former clerks, and some of these faithful followers have gone on to serve in the highest level of government and the judiciary. He started a tradition of taking his law clerks — who he refers to as his “kids” — to the Gettysburg battlefields at the end of each term to remind them of the nation’s past.
Thomas — to steal a word from the Gen Z culture — is now an influencer. At an event Thursday night, hosted by The Heritage Foundation to celebrate his legacy, Thomas addressed a crowd of the conservative faithful, referencing his more difficult days, and thanking those who had helped him. He said it was “an absolute joy” to be able to “celebrate this moment, not because of me, but because of you all and what we are trying to defend in this great country.” He was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who called Thomas a “legal titan.”