Political skills make Thomas a justice to be reckoned with
December 29, 2004
Chief Justice William Rehnquist must loathe opening the morning paper these days. Every day, there is fresh speculation on his impending death or resignation. Pundits have opined on whether his agreement to administer the inaugural oath in January is a sign that he is staying or that he is bidding farewell. Every public appearance of associate justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia is scrutinized for clues as to who is leading in the chief-justice sweeps.
President Bush has long identified Thomas and Scalia as his two favorite jurists, and both are seeking the court’s top seat. The very concept of justices campaigning for a position may seem out of character for the staid and insular Supreme Court, but the court has its own brand of politics.
The intrigue escalated suddenly a couple of weeks ago when White House officials intentionally leaked that the president was leaning toward Thomas for chief justice. Liberals went into a frenzy, and the dust-up may have served to help Scalia’s chances. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., responded to the rumors by saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would oppose Thomas, whom he described as “an embarrassment to the Supreme Court.” Then, in a concession, he said he could support Scalia as an alternative.
But Thomas is still the front-runner. Those who are astonished by his resurrection – after his bruising 1991 confirmation hearing – know little about his grit.
Once Thomas was sworn in on the court, he seemed to disappear from view – never speaking in oral arguments and rarely speaking publicly. But he lost no time in patiently gluing himself back together. Thomas has quietly assembled an impressive power base in Washington, built the old-fashioned way – one appointment at a time.
He has secured top positions for his clerks and associates throughout the government, from the White House counsel’s office to the Justice Department to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
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On Capitol Hill, Thomas is often seen lunching with congressional leaders, and he makes strategic appearances at conservative conferences. Various federal appellate and district judges (including Democrats) owe their confirmations to Thomas, who interceded with the Senate Republicans on their behalf.
In the end, Thomas may have too much baggage to carry through chief-justice confirmation hearings in the Senate, but the fact that he has made it this far is a testament to his political skill.
Jonathan Turley teaches law at George Washington University.