This month marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Senate vote to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Right-wing activists and pundits are celebrating the milestone, and the Heritage Foundation is hosting a day-long symposium on Thomas’ legacy on Thursday, Oct. 21.
More than half a dozen sitting federal judges are scheduled to take part in the symposium. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has done so much to pack the federal courts with Thomas’ ideological acolytes, will offer the keynote address at an evening event at which Thomas is also scheduled to speak. Both events are co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
Two years ago, Right Wing Watch reviewed a fawning book about Thomas and his impact on the federal judiciary by conservative author Myron Magnet, who called Thomas a “quiet army in himself.” The book argued that Thomas had used once-lonely dissents and concurring opinions to stake out positions on the law and the Constitution at the far right of the court. Magnet enthused that former President Donald Trump’s judges were giving Thomas “the troops” to carry out his vision of returning the United States to a pre-New Deal Constitution. That’s even more true today. More Trump judges clerked for Thomas than for any Supreme Court justice. And since then, of course, Amy Coney Barrett has joined Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the increasingly far-right-dominated Supreme Court.
As Right Wing Watch noted at the time, “Among those ‘troops’ are judges like James Ho, a young conservative firebrand now serving on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals whose opinions denouncing big government read like right-wing op-eds and echo Thomas’ rhetoric about the Second Amendment being treated as a ‘second-class right.’” Among the other Thomas clerks now serving as federal judges are Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who had more conservative credentials than relevant experience when Trump named her to the bench.
It is not only right-wing activists who recognize Thomas’ influence. In 2018, legal writer Ian Millhiser called Thomas “the most important legal thinker in America,” warning that Thomas has “reshaped the way conservatives think about the law.”
Thomas wants the Supreme Court to abandon 80 years of rulings on the Commerce Clause, which Congress used during the 1930s to enact New Deal programs that are still in effect today. Returning the U.S. to a pre-New Deal interpretation of the Constitution would mean doing away with New Deal and Great Society anti-poverty programs and dismantling the “administrative state.” As Right Wing Watch noted, “many conservative politicians haven’t been honest with their constituents that what they are seeking would mean the end of Social Security and Medicare and federal programs that protect workers, consumer, and communities.” In addition, Thomas holds a particularly extreme position on church-state separation, arguing that states are free under the Constitution to declare an official religion.
People For the American Way’s July 2021 report on the Supreme Court’s just-completed term noted that the right-wing Supreme Court justices are “clearly taking full advantage of their ill-gained majority.” That has led to “predictably disastrous results for voting rights as well as workers, consumers, and immigrants,” People For’s President Ben Jealous said in a statement.