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Portrait of Clarence Thomas
Portrait of Clarence Thomas.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Clarence Thomas

b. June 23, 1948, Pin Point, GA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Abandoned by his father at an early age, Clarence Thomas grew up in a tiny and impoverished community without paved roads or a sewer system. His mother worked as a maid and depended upon church charity to help raise her three children. When he was seven the family house burned to the ground. His mother sent her two sons to Savannah to live with her father, who taught them the importance of education and hard work and encouraged Thomas to become a priest. Thomas attended local black public schools, leaving after the second year of high school to attend St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, a Catholic boarding school for white students. Despite pervasive prejudice against him, he graduated in 1967 with a good academic record.

Thomas entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri, but left because of the racism he encountered. He enrolled at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, at a time when the school was actively recruiting blacks. He joined in forming a Black Student Union, supported the Black Panthers, and graduated, ninth in his class, in 1971 with an honors degree in English. Thomas went to Yale Law School, thanks in part to its affirmative action program. He concentrated on tax and antitrust law and earned his degree in 1974.

He worked in the office of John Danforth, Attorney General of Missouri, serving until 1977, when Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate. He took a position as corporate counsel in the pesticide and agriculture division of the Monsanto Company but left in 1980 to serve as a legislative assistant to Senator Danforth. In 1981 Thomas was appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Ten months later, President Reagan named him director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the body responsible for enforcing federal laws against discrimination in the workplace. As head of the EEOC, Thomas carried out Reagan administration policy by refusing to enforce quotas, goals, or timetables.

In 1990 President George H. W. Bush appointed Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where he served for 18 months. In 1991 he was appointed to the Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. His nomination was opposed by many civil rights groups, including the NAACP, and his confirmation hearings took a notorious turn when accusations of sexual harassment surfaced. Thomas famously decried the experience as "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks." He was confirmed by a Senate vote of 52-48, the closest confirmation vote in the 20th century.

Thomas has been referred to as the leading conservative in America. His opinions are some of the most conservative of any justice having served on the Court. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), Thomas dissented from the majority opinion that exempted individuals with mental retardation from the death penalty. The rationale of Thomas and the other dissenters was that mental retardation would be too easy to fake.

Gregarious, with an easy laugh, Thomas seldom takes an active role in oral arguments and almost always votes with Scalia. Like his colleague, he believes that the exact phrasing of the Constitution is the surest guide to its meaning, and he would severely limit the Court's right to review legislation. Unlike Scalia, however, he has little or no respect for judicial precedent. He decisions frequently disagree with those of the Court majority.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

Anthony Kennedy David Souter Clarence Thomas Ruth Bader Ginsburg view all biographies Antonin Scalia John Paul Stevens Stephen Breyer John Roberts Samuel Alito