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Helgi Walker

Why are the media so angry at Clarence Thomas?

MEDIA REACTION to the release last week of "My Grandfather's Son" by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been noteworthy in two respects: First, while the general coverage across the country had been even-handed and fair, some journalists feel compelled to express their views of the book and the justice in terms that are so negative and personalized that they seem to belie a deep anger toward the man and what he stands for; second, others in the press are being chastised by their peers for not being critical enough of the book. The irony is that the man who some regrettably still feel the need to tear down 16 years after his confirmation is among the staunchest defenders on the Supreme Court of a fulsome understanding of the First Amendment - thus protecting their right to voice their opinions, however mean-spirited.

What are the principles expressed in the book that are so worthy of vitriol and cannot be acknowledged as legitimate? As a former law clerk to Thomas, I have heard these principles from him for many years: All people are created equal, with inherent worth and dignity; freedom includes freedom of thought; hard work and education are important elements of success; aim for self-reliance so that you can help not just yourself but others too; stand up for what you believe in; never give up in adversity, keep trying to put one foot in front of the other; and great things are possible in this nation. I have never understood what was so "dangerous" about these ideas. Indeed, most Americans would have little quarrel with these propositions.

It must not, then, be the ideas themselves that Thomas's critics find so objectionable. Perhaps it is that he dares to contradict their own notions of who he should be, what he should think, and what kind of life he should lead. Indeed, the coverage at issue is not composed of arguments against the ideas expressed in the book but of the classic argumentum ad hominen -- "arguments against the man." As the book shows, the thread that weaves through all of the diverse experiences in the justice's life - from Roman Catholic seminarian in the 1960s, to Black Student Union member in the 1970s, to chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s, and now to originalist jurist - is his insistence on independence. During all these times of his life, he refused to be controlled by the relevant establishment or indeed by any person.

Rather than attempting to psychoanalyze the justice - who in the book declares his own humanity with a grace and vulnerability that people of all walks of life can relate to, explaining that he has simply tried to do his best, step by sometimes-unsure step - these critics, including columnists from the New York Times, might well consider their own selves. When they call him "a justice with issues," as a Washington Post website columnist did last week, one might reasonably wonder what their issues are. What are they so angry about? That Justice Thomas won't kowtow to them? That he was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite their best efforts to stop him? That he, along with four other members of the Court, ruled that Florida violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection in the 2000 presidential election?

Meanwhile, the justice goes on with the work of the Court, as he has for the last 16 years. For those interested in his professional endeavors, his opinions are printed in the United States Report. These opinions are, as even legal scholars who do not share the justice's jurisprudential views have acknowledged, thorough, well-written, and soundly researched. They reflect Thomas's willingness to debate legal issues with his colleagues on the Court, as well as his unfailing courtesy toward those colleagues when they disagree.

Finally, these opinions lay out one of the most robust theories of the First Amendment in modern American jurisprudence. Justice Thomas protects our rights to form our own opinions, to hold them as part of who we are, and to express them in the marketplace of ideas. His theory of the First Amendment is premised on the principles that, in the end, the people will choose the ideas they consider to be the best ones, and that in a democracy the truth will will out from the fulcrum of vigorous substantive discussion.

Those who criticize the justice personally in such uncivil tones benefit from this just like the rest of us. But they are apparently not interested in the law or the justice's work on the Court, only (and sadly, still) in ad hominem politics.

Helgi Walker is a former law clerk for Justice Thomas and a former associate White House counsel.

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