BY HUGO TORRES
Ken Foskett, a journalist and author of the Clarence Thomas biography “Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas” spoke at HLS on Wednesday to discuss his book on the youngest Justice of the Supreme Court. In a speech sponsored by the Federalist Society, Foskett described some of the highlights of his research into the life of Justice Thomas, a task that involved hundreds of interviews with friends and associates of Justice Thomas.
Describing Justice Thomas as “a man who loves to engage, loves to joke, loves to laugh,” Foskett noted. Foskett also mentioned that in writing the book he aimed to cover Thomas “without judging his political beliefs.”
Foskett started by providing an overview of Justice Thomas’ life, beginning with the fact that Thomas was raised by his grandparents in Georgia. Thomas’ grandfather, a strict disciplinarian, would always wake Thomas before the crack of dawn, instilling in Thomas a lifelong ethic of rising early and working hard.
Raised Catholic, Justice Thomas went to parochial school, an experience which “saved Clarence Thomas” as they were the best education “that a black child could have at the time,” according to Foskett.
Yet despite the discipline instilled in him by his grandfather, “there is a part of Clarence Thomas that rebels against being told what to do.” Raised as an African-American Catholic in the South, Thomas became used to being a person out of the mainstream. According to Foskett, this detachment from regular society informs a comment Thomas once made: “I’m very comfortable being alone in my views.”
A student radical who arrived at Holy Cross in Worcester wearing combat boots, fatigues, and a beret, Justice Thomas founded the Black Student Union at Holy Cross and led a walk-out protest of black students during his time there. While at a protest in Boston, however, Justice Thomas had an epiphany.
“Why are you here instead of trying to get ahead?” asked the future Justice to himself. “Why are you here instead of doing what no one in your family has done…and get a college degree?”
The young Thomas therefore faced a choice: to “tear down the establishment or be part of the establishment.”
Opting for the latter route, Justice Thomas rededicated himself to his studies and went to Yale for law school, but upon graduation could not find a corporate law job that he desired. Instead, he was only offered civil rights work. “Rightly or wrongly, [Thomas] blamed failure to get [his desired] job on affirmative action,” said Foskett.
Eventually, Justice Thomas found other opportunities, working for both the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then came the appointment to the Supreme Court and with it, the controversial hearings that centered on allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill.
“Anita Hill did not want to go public,” noted Foskett, referring to the allegations made against Thomas as to sexual harassment. “She was pushed and outed when her testimony to the Judiciary Committee was leaked.”
Foskett explained that Thomas and Hill knew each other personally before working together professionally–they lived in the same building and met through a mutual acquaintance. When Thomas joined the Department of Education, he asked Hill to work in the Department as well.
The scandal shed awareness as to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. As a result of the claims brought by Hill, “businesses all around the country started training employees in sexual harassment.” For Thomas however, the impact was a devastating one. “Clarence Thomas came out of it a traumatized and broken man.”
Nonetheless, Foskett believes that Justice Thomas’ inner strength and discipline have helped him navigate the subsequent years. “This is a man who has always been underestimated. Yet he’s proven very resilient over the years.”
“Patience,” Thomas once told a colleague, “was an honest man’s revenge.”
People thought his reputation was tarnished, but Justice Thomas has endured, noted Foskett. “Today, this is a man who may very well be the next chief justice of the Supreme Court.”
Currently, Thomas is busy not only serving on the Supreme Court but also raising his adopted grand-nephew, getting out of work on time every day to pick him up from school. He likes to travel the country with his wife and grand-nephew in their RV, and enjoys the anonymity he often finds from being a member of the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas is renowned for being friendly towards clerks and other court staff, and is known to play basketball with court security guards.