This month, Clarence Thomas, now the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, wrote a 5-4 opinion overturning a 40-year precedent on states’ individual sovereignty, and stood against all his colleagues except Ruth Bader Ginsburg in favor of armed services members suing the government for medical malpractice.
Thomas goes wherever the Constitution and the law as written lead, ideology be damned. And history will judge him a giant for it.
In Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that a state cannot, without its own consent, be sued in another state’s courts, overruling the high court’s 1979 Nevada v. Hall decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the slim majority, stated that stare decisis, referring to the much-hyped practice of following well-grounded previous Supreme Court rulings, “does not compel continued adherence to this erroneous precedent.”
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer wasted no time in his dissent, calling Thomas’s majority opinion “the absolute approach,” later asserting that “stare decisis requires us to follow Hall, not overrule it,.” Then the Clinton appointee slyly added: “See Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey” – Casey being the 1992 joint opinion of three Republican-appointed justices preserving the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion on demand, nullifying all 50 states’ various abortion laws.
The Constitution Trumps Flawed Precedent
“Overruling a case always requires ‘special justification,’” Breyer went on to write. “What could that justification be in this case? The majority does not find one.”
Clarence Thomas finds the Constitution of the United States to be “special justification” enough, and in this case he quotes Madison and Hamilton on how immunity from private lawsuits was integral to sovereignty. But Breyer was sending a not-too-subtle signal that Roewould soon be on the chopping block.
The Supreme Court also, on Monday, refused, 7-to-2, to hear Daniel v. United States, in which the husband of a Navy lieutenant sought to sue the federal government after his wife bled to death after giving birth at a naval hospital. In this case, Justice Ginsburg was with Thomas, who wrote an individual dissent calling, not for the first time, for the striking down of the 1950 Feres v. United States decision, which holds that military personnel injured due to a federal employee’s negligence can’t sue the government under the 1946 Federal Tort Claims Act.
Thomas pointed out in 2013, when the court refused another attempt to reconsider Feres, that the actual law only allows the government immunity when the injury is the result of “combatant activities of the military or naval forces, or the Coast Guard, during time of war.” Feres thus “has the unfortunate consequence of depriving servicemen of any remedy when they are injured by the negligence of the Government or its employees,” Thomas wrote.
A case like that makes you wonder if Thomas is the only current Supreme Court justice who reads the actual words of enacted statutes.
A Trail Future Justices Can Follow
Myron Magnet, editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and author of one of the most important books of the last 30 years, The Dream and the Nightmare: the Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass, has devoted his newest work to the senior associate justice. In Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, published this month, Magnet argues that “in the hundreds of opinions he has written in more than a quarter century on the court,” Thomas “has questioned the constitutional underpinnings of the new order and has tried to restore the limited, self-governing original one, as more legitimate, more just, and more free than the one that grew up in its stead.”
While Thomas’s legacy may not be fully evident today, Magnet believes “Like such other great dissenters as the first John Marshall Harlan or Antonin Scalia, he has blazed a trail to liberty that future justices can follow.”
Stare decisis “in modern times has been a handmaiden of judicial policy-making: judges tinker with the precedents until ‘they get what they want, and then they start yelling stare decisis, as though that is supposed to stop you,’ Thomas said in 2016 … An iron-bound allegiance to stare decisis, as the court has demonstrated more than once, can result in generations of error piled upon error,” Magnet warns.
“’I trust the Constitution itself. The written document is the ultimate stare decisis,’ Thomas argues. ‘Instead of saying stare decisis,’ he explained recently, ‘we should say quo warranto – by what authority?’”
A Supreme Court That Kept Blacks Unarmed
Magnet then plays tour guide to some of Thomas’s most insightful opinions, like 1995’s United States v Lopez, in which he used a congressional overreach of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to point out that even supposedly legitimate uses of that provision might eventually “give Congress a ‘police power’ over all aspects of American life,” pointing out that “when asked [in oral argument] if there were any limits to the Commerce Clause, the Government was at a loss for words.”
According to Magnet, “Thomas’s magnum opus so far” is his concurrence in the 2010 McDonald v. Chicago decision, in which Chicago’s handguns-within-the-home prohibition was struck down. Thomas “utterly repudiates the Supreme Court’s most tragically wrong and history-changing decisions of them all, the Slaughter-House Cases and United States v. Cruikshank, the two cases … that strangled Reconstruction in its cradle and licensed the generations-long grip of Jim Crow on black Southerners.”
White Southerners in the aftermath of the Civil War did not want freed blacks able to arm themselves, so only five years after the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification the new amendment was falsely interpreted by the Supreme Court as not applying the Bill of Rights – including Second Amendment gun rights – to the states.
“Cruikshank’s holding that blacks could look only to state governments for protection of their right to keep and bear arms enabled private forces, often with the assistance of local governments, to subjugate the newly freed slaves and their descendants through a wave of private violence designed to drive blacks from the voting booth and force them into peonage, an effective return to slavery,” Justice Thomas wrote. “Without federal enforcement of the inalienable right to keep and bear arms, these militias and mobs were tragically successful in waging a campaign of terror against the very people the Fourteenth Amendment had just made citizens.”
The Second Amendment suppressed for white supremacist purposes. Imagine.
The “substantive due process” doctrine used by the others in the McDonald majority, as venerable and oft-used over many years as it may be, repeatedly “applies rights against the States that are not mentioned in the Constitution at all, even without seriously arguing that the Clause was originally understood to protect such rights,” Thomas noted, citing Roe and 1905’s Lochner v. New York, a discredited ruling that held that laws limiting working hours violated the due process clause.
Thomas called the doctrine “a legal fiction” that “fails to account for both the text of the Fourteenth Amendment and the history that led to its adoption, filling that gap with a jurisprudence devoid of a guiding principle. I believe the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment offers a superior alternative, and that a return to that meaning would allow this Court to enforce the rights the Fourteenth Amendment is designed to protect with greater clarity and predictability than the substantive due process framework has so far managed.”
Thomas reminded his colleagues: “stare decisis is only an ‘adjunct’ of our duty as judges to decide by our best lights what the Constitution means.”
Experts Vs. The People Themselves
Clarence Thomas’s life experience was a near-perfect prelude to his becoming champion of the true, plain meaning of the Constitution. Growing up in poverty in segregated Savannah, Georgia, raised by a grandfather whose love for him manifested itself in harshly demanding responsibility of him, with no excuses allowed; “flirting with and rejecting black radicalism at college,” as Magnet notes, “and running one of the myriad administrative agencies that the Great Society had piled onto the New Deal’s batch – an agency that supposedly advanced equality – he doubted that unelected experts and justices really did understand the moral arc of the universe better than the people themselves. He had seen how the rules and rulings they issued too often made lives worse, not better.”
Justice Breyer apparently has the company of pro-life lawmakers in Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri and other states in believing stare decisis will not protect Roe v. Wade from the current composition of the court on which he sits. If they’re right, it won’t be “the absolute approach” that wins. It will be the unaccountable “permanent constitutional convention, continually making and remaking the law,” as Magnet calls it, that at long last loses.
Their sharp disagreement about precedent reflects different worldviews that go far beyond abortion.
May 22, 2019 6:53 p.m. ET
Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington, Feb. 15, 2018. PHOTO: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Justice Stephen Breyer lamented last week that the Supreme Court had overturned “a well-reasoned decision that has caused no serious practical problems in the four decades since we decided it.” Dissenting from Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority decision in Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt, Justice Breyer added: “Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the Court will overrule next.”
Court watchers assumed the two justices were arguing about abortion, although the case had nothing to do with that issue. But the clash over stare decisis—the doctrine that courts must respect precedent as binding—runs far deeper. It is a manifestation of the crisis of legitimacy that has split Americans into two increasingly hostile camps.
On Justice Thomas’s side is the belief that the government’s authority rests on the written Constitution. This view regards a self-governing republic—designed to protect the individual’s right to pursue his own happiness in his own way, in his family and local community—as the most just and up-to-date form of government ever imagined, even 232 years after the Constitutional Convention.
Justice Breyer, by contrast, assumes America is rightly governed by a “living Constitution,” which evolves by judicial decree to meet modernity’s fast-changing conditions. Judges make up law “with boldness and a touch of audacity,” as Woodrow Wilson put it, rather than merely interpreting a Constitution he thought obsolete.
Wilson also established a corps of supposedly expert, nonpartisan administrators in such agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, to make rules like a legislature, carry them out like an executive, and adjudicate and punish infractions of them like a judiciary. Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who supersized this system, considered it the cutting edge of modernity in the protection it afforded workers and the disadvantaged. Call it the Fairness Party, as distinct from Justice Thomas’s Freedom Party.
The Freedom Party does not view the rule by decrees of unelected officials, however enlightened, as an advance over democratic self-government. If the framers had wanted such a system, they could have stuck with the unwritten British constitution, which had governed the American colonists for 150 years and evolves by judicial precedent. They wanted a written constitution, strictly limiting federal authority, because they knew that human nature’s inborn selfishness and aggression not only make government necessary but also lead government officials to abuse their power if not restrained.
U.S. history justifies the framers’ caution, as Justice Thomas has argued in hundreds of opinions since joining the court in 1991. At crucial junctures, the Supreme Court has twisted the Constitution that guarantees liberty toward government oppression.
Start with The Slaughter-House Cases (1873) and U.S. v. Cruikshank(1876), which blew away the protection of the Bill of Rights with which the 14th Amendment’s framers and ratifiers thought they had clothed freed slaves against depredations by state governments. The result was 90 years of Jim Crow tyranny in the South. “I have a personal interest in this,” Justice Thomas once said. “I lived under segregation.” He grew up in 1950s Savannah, Ga., where the law forbade him to drink out of this fountain or walk across that park. If the Fairness Party thinks Supreme Court distortions can twist only to the left, it should think again. Far better to stick to the original meaning, as Justice Thomas urges.
Look what happened when the court allowed Congress and the president to proliferate administrative agencies with no political accountability. The justices have “overseen and sanctioned the growth of an administrative system that concentrates the power to make laws and the power to enforce them in the hands of a vast and unaccountable administrative apparatus that finds no comfortable home in our constitutional structure,” Justice Thomas wrote in a 2015 opinion, the first of a series that argued for reining in the administrative state.
Such lawless power ends in tyranny, as in the case of Joseph Robertson. As these pages recently reported, the Montana rancher dug two ponds fed by a trickle that ran down his mountain acres, only to be prosecuted and imprisoned for polluting “navigable waterways,” as absurdly defined by bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Beginning with the Warren Court in the 1950s, bold and audacious justices began making up law out of the Constitution’s “emanations, formed by penumbras”—literally, gas and shadows. As Justice Thomas has objected, the court invented rights that sharply curtailed the traditional order-keeping authority of police and teachers, making streets, schools, and housing projects in poor neighborhoods dangerous, and depriving mostly minority citizens of the first civil right—to be safe. The justices have even trampled the Bill of Rights, sanctioning campaign-finance laws that curtail the political speech at the core of First Amendment protections.
It’s as if the Court respects no limits. Thus the hallmark of Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence is his willingness to overturn prior decisions when he thinks his predecessors have construed the Constitution incorrectly. The justices readily overturn unconstitutional laws passed by a duly elected Congress. Why be more tender toward judicial errors?
“Stare decisis is not an inexorable command,” Justice Thomas observes in Hyatt. He has said elsewhere: “I think that the Constitution itself, the written document, is the ultimate stare decisis.” Justice Breyer asks which cases the court will overrule next. Justice Thomas’s reasonable answer: Whichever ones go against the Constitution.
Mr. Magnet is editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, a National Humanities Medal laureate and author of “Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution.”
Manhattan Institute Book Forum | May 8 2019, New York City
When Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court in 1991, he found with dismay that it was interpreting a very different Constitution from the one the framers had written―the one that had established a federal government manned by the people’s own elected representatives, charged with protecting citizens’ inborn rights while leaving them free to work out their individual happiness themselves, in their families, communities, and states. He found that his predecessors on the Court were complicit in the first step of this transformation, when in the 1870s they defanged the Civil War amendments intended to give full citizenship to his fellow black Americans. In the next generation, Woodrow Wilson, dismissing the framers and their work as obsolete, set out to replace laws made by the people’s representatives with rules made by highly educated, modern, supposedly nonpartisan “experts,” an idea Franklin Roosevelt supersized in the New Deal agencies that he acknowledged had no constitutional warrant. Then, under Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s, the Nine set about realizing Wilson’s dream of a Supreme Court sitting as a permanent constitutional convention, conjuring up laws out of smoke and mirrors and justifying them as expressions of the spirit of the age.
But Thomas, who joined the Court after eight years running one of the myriad administrative agencies that the Great Society had piled on top of FDR’s batch, had deep misgivings about the new governmental order. He shared the framers’ vision of free, self-governing citizens forging their own fate. And from his own experience growing up in segregated Savannah, flirting with and rejecting black radicalism at college, and running an agency that supposedly advanced equality, he doubted that unelected experts and justices really did understand the moral arc of the universe better than the people themselves, or that the rules and rulings they issued made lives better rather than worse. So in the hundreds of opinions he has written in more than a quarter century on the Court―the most important of them explained in these pages in clear, non-lawyerly language―he has questioned the constitutional underpinnings of the new order and tried to restore the limited, self-governing original one, as more legitimate, more just, and more free than the one that grew up in its stead. The Court now seems set to move down the trail he blazed.
A free, self-governing nation needs independent-minded, self-reliant citizens, and Thomas’s biography, vividly recounted here, produced just the kind of character that the founders assumed would always mark Americans. America’s future depends on the power of its culture and institutions to form ever more citizens of this stamp.
Critical Praise for Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution
“Myron Magnet has written a fascinating and provocative study of what he calls the ‘Lost Constitution,’ seen through the prism of Justice Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence, which the author sees as a way to retrieve it. Written for the lay reader, this brief volume makes a compelling case for originalism. With the light it shines on culture, character, race, and liberty under law, though, the book is about more than just Clarence Thomas and originalism, in the same sense that Moby Dick is about more than just whaling. A great read.”
—Michael B. Mukasey, 81st Attorney General of the United States (2007–2009) and U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York (1988–2006)
“In Myron Magnet’s splendid account, sensational and learned by turns, the Framers join hands with a jurist from Pinpoint, Georgia, and the slums of Savannah. Riveting.”
—Richard Brookhiser, author of John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court
“Myron Magnet captures the essence of Clarence Thomas through a thoughtful analysis of his work on the Court. Thomas says what he believes, does what is right, and harbors no concern about how he will be treated by the culture for the decisions he makes.”
—Leonard A. Leo, Executive Vice President, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies