Clarence Thomas Celebrates 30 Years on Supreme Court, Is Now Leading Conservative

On October 23, 1991, Clarence Thomas took his seat as the newest associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court following a contentious nomination process and a narrow vote in the Senate.

Now 73-years-old, Thomas marks 30 years on the Court on Saturday as the longest-serving member of the nation's highest court and the most senior associate justice.

The composition of the Court has changed over the past three decades but in just the last year the balance has shifted in a direction that appears to favor Thomas' conservative and originalist views of the U.S. Constitution.

The president in 1991 was George H.W. Bush, a Republican who had successfully nominated David Souter to the Court the previous year.

At the time, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall was the first and only African American to serve on the Supreme Court and Marshall announced his retirement, Bush nominated Thomas to succeed him.

Thomas, then 43, was a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at the time and though qualified for the role, his nomination proved one of the most controversial in recent history.

A Contentious Confirmation

Thomas testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was then led by Senator Joe Biden. When the hearings ended and the Senate was considering the nomination, allegations of sexual harassment allegations in a confidential FBI report leaked to the press.

Those allegations had been made by law professor Anita Hill, who had worked under Thomas at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a rare move, the confirmation hearings were reopened and Hill testified.

Hill's appearance before the committee was televised and lasted four days. It was contentious, as was the behavior of some of the senators asking her questions, and Biden later expressed regret at the way she had been treated.

Nonetheless, the Senate voted narrowly to confirm Thomas on October 15, 1991. The vote was 52 to 48 and Thomas formally took his seat on the Court on October 23.

Originalist Views

Thomas, like the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, considers himself an originalist.

Paul Collins, a legal studies and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, spoke to Newsweek about Thomas on October 15.

"We can certainly draw comparisons between Justices Scalia and Thomas. Both justices claimed to be strong advocates of the doctrine of originalism – the idea that judges should interpret the words in the Constitution according to how they would have been understood at the time they were written," Collins said.

That judicial philosophy may soon be tested as controversial cases on abortion and gun rights come before the Court this term. Thomas joined four other conservatives in refusing to grant a stay of Texas' six-week abortion ban on September 1, while Roberts joined the liberals in the minority.

With the landmark abortion rights ruling Roe v. Wade set to be tested before the justices, Thomas' views and influence on his fellow conservatives could prove crucial.

An October Surprise

During his time on the Supreme Court, Thomas has become famous for his reticence. He rarely asked questions during the rapid-fire questioning portion of oral arguments and is known to dislike interrupting people and being interrupted.

However, Thomas surprised many seasoned Court watchers earlier this month by asking the first question of the 2021/2022 term during rapid-fire questions. While it's not entirely clear why Thomas was so keen to ask questions, it may have something to do with the changed conditions previously imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, the Court conducted oral arguments virtually and used a system where justices asked questions in order of seniority. Thomas participated fully in this method of questioning and the Court is now using a mixed system.

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer described Thomas as a "good friend" during an event on Wednesday.

"He's very straightforward and now, I think, one of the virtues of this system that we had during COVID of just having our oral argument over the telephone - he began to ask more questions," Breyer questions.

"Because the reason he wasn't really asking questions - I sat next to him for 27 years, you know, and I know he was thinking about these cases and I know to a degree what his questions were - but he didn't like interrupting people," he said.

The 6-3 Court

However, there may be another reason Thomas is more willing to ask questions. The Court now has a solid 6-3 conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts' influence reduced. Roberts was a key swing vote when the Court was divided 5-4 along conservative and liberal lines and he often joined the liberal wing in key cases.

Now, Thomas sits on a more conservative Court and he has the potential to emerge as its intellectual leader. Thomas is also well-known for penning dissenting opinions - something he may have to do less with the Court's current makeup.

Clarence Thomas Speaks at the Heritage Foundation
Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Thomas marks 30 years on the Court as of October 23. Drew Angerer/Getty Images