Commentary

Saunders: Calling Clarence Thomas names trivializes the damage he can do

August 6, 2013 

After a recent column in which I compared Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to an Oreo cookie – you know: black on the outside, white on the inside – two or 500 readers came down pretty hard on me.

Respect his station, most said, even if you loathe his views.

They were, of course, right.

Unless it is revealed that Thomas is a secret fan of the “Cleopatra Jones” movies, chances are that I disagree with just about everything he stands for.

Despite that, comparing the Supreme Court justice to a cookie did nothing to raise the level of public discourse and was extremely unfair – to cookies everywhere, even to those chocolate mint thingies that taste horrible but you end up eating a whole row of them anyway simply because they’re there.

Comparing Thomas to a cookie is an insult to cookies – oh, all right, and to you, too, Clarence. It also trivializes the damage he can inflict upon people who look to the courts for redress.

From his first ruling onward, nearly every chance Thomas has had from the bench to protect the rights of the underdog, he has refused.

N.C. inmate’s case

I hope his epitaph contains his dissent on the 2010 case of North Carolina inmate Jamey Wilkins who, after asking a prison guard for a grievance form, claimed he was slammed onto a concrete floor, punched and kicked by several guards. The inmate sued – after all, he was still a human being and a U.S. citizen who was protected by the Constitution, right?

Not according to Thomas, who voted with the minority that there was no evidence that the guards intended to seriously injure the inmate. In an unauthorized Thomas biography, “Supreme Discomfort” by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, the authors cite his stated view that prisons are by definition tough – even cruel – places and the federal courts are not in a position to change that. “The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation,” Thomas dissented.

Sweet Jesus. At least he was consistent: he’d previously ruled the same way in a 1993 case involving a Louisiana inmate who’d been pummeled.

Such gratuitous mean-spiritedness reminds me of a woman I almost married years ago. I mean, just mean to be mean.

Not a surprise

Speaking of epitaphs, in Monday’s column on the death of civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, I noted that Chambers’ perfect record before the U.S. Supreme Court came B.C. – Before Clarence. Was anybody on Earth surprised that Thomas voted this summer to gut the Voting Rights Act, which some consider the most important piece of legislation in the 20th century?

Of course not. It’s a good thing Thomas wasn’t on the court when it voted on Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Chances are he’d have ended up on the wrong side – according to history and decency – of both cases.

Thomas is a big supporter of states’ rights, but were he the student of history he touts himself as being, he’d know that had some states had their “rights,” he wouldn’t be sitting up there in that august chamber wearing that black robe.

He’d be on somebody’s veranda wearing a starched coat going “Yowsah” or in a field chopping cotton and singing “Nobody knows de’ trouble I’se seen.” And I’d probably be right there beside him, going, “Say, blood. Let’s run away and be free.”

To which he’d probably reply “What? You mean we ain’t free?”

So yeah, calling him a cookie is letting him off the hook too easy.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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