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Thomas dedicates new Georgia judicial building

sketch of clarence thomas sitting behind bench and tilting head forward

Justice Clarence Thomas, known for his reticence during oral arguments at the Supreme Court, has maintained a steady public profile during the court’s 2020 winter recess. A new documentary about his life, based largely on interviews with Thomas and his wife Ginni, hit theaters in early February. The week before, Thomas spoke at a Federalist Society event in Florida, where he questioned a measure to bar judges from joining ideological groups like the society or its counterpart on the left, the American Constitution Society. On Tuesday, the justice made his most recent appearance, dedicating the state’s Nathan Deal Judicial Center in his home state of Georgia.

The state legislature named the building for Deal, Georgia’s governor from 2011 to 2019, in part for Deal’s work on criminal justice reform. An introductory video at the dedication ceremony highlighted the role of prison labor in building furniture and other items for the new building. Thomas began his remarks with a note of thanks for the gavel, fashioned by state prison inmates, he had been given the night before: “I can’t tell you how touched I was by that.”

Thomas, who was born in Pin Point, Georgia, a small town near Savannah, proclaimed that he is “proud to have been born and raised in South Georgia, and will always consider myself a Georgian at heart and in spirit.” He praised Deal’s “deeply personal commitment to criminal justice reform” and briefly highlighted elements of the building’s architecture.

Thomas then spoke to those who will work inside the building, as agents in the judiciary’s efforts to uphold “liberty” – by which, he clarified, he did “not mean today’s common but deluded understanding of that term: that is, the freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want.” Rather, Thomas emphasized a liberty that is attained, in the words of Justice Robert Jackson, not “merely by lifting underprivileged classes to power” but “only by the rule of law.”

The rule of law, and the judiciary’s role in upholding it, proved to be the theme of Thomas’ remarks. “The judiciary is rightly at the forefront of ensuring that we remain a government of laws,” Thomas said. “It is charged with keeping each branch of government, including itself, within its respective constitutional limits … and ensuring that citizens are not subject to governance by arbitrary fiat of another human being.”

But “[j]udges sometimes substitute what the law requires with what they desire” to correct the legislature, Thomas lamented, or “in accordance with their own racial, religious, or partisan prejudices.” “None of us is immune from these temptations,” Thomas emphasized, and “we judges, especially, must be disciplined and on guard.”

“Each time a judge sidesteps or manipulates the law to achieve his or her desired outcome, the rule of law suffers,” Thomas continued. He argued that an “outcome-driven method of judging prevents the politically accountable branches from having to make hard decisions on divisive issues” and replaces “government by consent with government by judges.”

This is particularly dangerous, Thomas believes, “when we recognize how many harmful policies – beginning with slavery – were at one point considered desirable or just.” In his view, the “Supreme Court’s opinions on racial segregation provide an apt example.” Thomas praised Justice John Harlan’s sole dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court’s infamous decision upholding the “separate but equal” standard, for proclaiming “the true meaning of the 14th Amendment against the then prevailing and popular notions about race.”

Thomas observed that upholding the rule of law “requires a willingness to apply the law knowing that its application will not garner popular approval.” He implored judges not to make decisions “by a desire to be revered or lionized for reaching certain outcomes” and cautioned that judges “are not mass media icons.”

In closing, Thomas suggested that the “inspiring architecture of this building” and judicial edifices nationwide “reflect[] this ideal” of an impartial bastion of the rule of law:

Courthouses, in my view, should, like this judicial center, be majestic – and it is. Not so in homage to us judges who serve in them, but rather as a reminder of the special trust that our fellow citizens … have placed in us. That trust … is the sole source of our authority to judge our fellow citizens[. It] is their consent that underpins a nation founded on the rule of law, and it is that trust and that consent that we judges must always honor and respect.

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Thomas dedicates new Georgia judicial building, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 11, 2020, 6:50 PM),