October 28, 2010

Why Clarence Thomas owes African-Americans an apology

When Ginni Thomas -- the Tea Partying wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas -- left Anita Hill a voicemail message asking for an apology, she got it all wrong. It's really Clarence Thomas who owes the apology, to the black community that is.

During his confirmation hearings in 1991, America was introduced to Thomas. And his handlers and boosters created a Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story of a black man who emerged from a meager upbringing in Pinpoint, Georgia to become an embodiment of the American dream. We learned that he had Gullah roots. As someone with Gullah ancestry myself via Charleston, South Carolina, I must ask what happened to Thomas to make him run away from his people and forget from whence he came. Justice Thomas is part of the high court's conservative majority (led by Justices Roberts and Scalia), and often is regarded as the most rightward judge among his peers. His record on the bench tells the story:

An originalist, Justice Thomas believes in the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That is bad news for black folks, and presumably for Thomas as well, given that under that judicial philosophy, he and all other blacks should be in chains on someone's plantation.

Thomas staunchly defended gun rights for African-Americans by cynically making an argument that had hints of Malcolm X or the Black Panther Party. He suggested that black people needed guns to protect themselves from the mob violence of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. True, but that argument seems misplaced in the realities of present-day black America, when young black men in the cities are shooting each other to death. The staunch second amendment advocate had nothing to say about that.

In Hudson v. McMillian (1992), Thomas dissented from the court's majority opinion which said prisoners were covered by the constitution's protection against "cruel and unusual punishment." Consistently, Thomas and Scalia have dissented when the court ruled in favor of prisoners who alleged cruelty, including the case of an inmate who was repeatedly punched in the mouth by a guard, a prisoner who was handcuffed to a "hitching post" and forced to stand shirtless for seven hours in the hot sun. Thomas even believed that an inmate who was slammed against a concrete floor, punched and kicked by a guard for filing a grievance did not have his constitutional rights violated.

According to Thomas, such harsh treatment did not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. "Judges -- not jailers -- impose punishment," he wrote. And while his outrage over the tasering and beating of his suicidal epileptic nephew in a Louisiana hospital was understandable if not laudable, never has he shown any sympathy for the one in nine prison inmates suffering from mental illness. It is understandable that Thomas' former law clerk John Yoo was investigated for writing memos in the Justice Department justifying torture of terror suspects.

In another case dealing with the death penalty, Thomas concluded in a concurring opinion that a defendant's childhood misfortunes or poverty should have no bearing in a case. And he sided with the minority when the court's struck down random drug searches by police at highway checkpoints because they violate the right to privacy.


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