How Clarence Thomas Went From a Childhood Sleeping on Dirt Floor to Becoming ‘the People’s Justice’

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up with little. He and his younger brother slept on a dirt floor, and their mother struggled to make enough money to feed them. When he was a boy, Thomas’ mother sent him and his brother to live with his grandparents in hopes of a better life. 

Thomas’ “grandfather raised them with an iron fist,” federal appeals court Judge Amul Thapar says, “and this becomes important as you go through his jurisprudence, because there were a couple of things his grandfather did that impacted a young Clarence Thomas.” 

Thomas’ grandfather taught him that complaining accomplished nothing, that education was invaluable, and to think for himself, Thapar says. Those principles, he says, have influenced Thomas, now 75, as a Supreme Court justice. 

But despite Thomas’ commitment to the Constitution, he has faced criticism from the Left over the years, something Thapar contends is a result of the justice’s loyalty to judicial originalism. 

“Critics need a caricature because they don’t like originalism,” Thapar says. “Why? What is originalism at its heart? It returns the power to the American people.” 

In his new book “The People’s Justice: Clarence Thomas and the Constitutional Stories that Define Him,” Thapar details how Thomas has sought through his time on the bench since 1991 to return power to the American people. 

Thapar, elevated to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by then-President Donald Trump in 2017, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share stories of Thomas’ life and his legacy as a Supreme Court justice.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

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Virginia Allen: I am so pleased that we are joined by Judge [Amul] Thapar of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge, thank you so much for being here today, and congratulations on your brand new book “The People’s Justice: Clarence Thomas and the Constitutional Stories that Define Him.” Judge, thank you so much for being with us today.

Judge Amul Thapar: Thank you very much for having me.

Allen: Well, in writing this new book, “The People’s Justice: Clarence Thomas and the Constitutional Stories that Define Him,” you have really delved deep into the life and the cases of Justice Clarence Thomas. If you had describe him in just a few words, how would you do that?

Thapar: I would say he’s passionate, caring, and a person of the people.

Allen: I think you do such a good job of detailing this in the book as you talk about his early years and his life. Share, if you would, just a little bit about Justice Clarence Thomas’ early life and who raised him.

Thapar: I think the early life for Justice Thomas is such an important factor that is often left out, and you can see it, interestingly, traced through his jurisprudence.

So, he was born in the tidelands of Georgia, and he was born during segregation. And his mom was raising him and his younger brother, but she was so poor that they literally slept on a dirt floor. So when you say dirt poor, I think Clarence Thomas as a child was the epitome of dirt poor, so much so that his mom was making $10 a week and could not afford to feed a young Clarence Thomas and his brother. So she gave them to their grandfather to raise.

And the grandfather raised them with an iron fist. And this becomes important as you go through his jurisprudence because there were a couple things his grandfather did that impacted a young Clarence Thomas.

The first and foremost was, whenever Clarence Thomas or his brother said they couldn’t do anything, his grandfather had a saying that they knew well. And it was, “Old Man Can’t is dead. You know how I know? I helped bury him.” And so the complaining was not acceptable. There was no barrier they couldn’t overcome, in their grandfather’s mind, if they put their mind to it.

The second and really important thing, and maybe there’s three, if I can, that their grandfather thought is that education means emancipation.

Even though he himself had a third-grade education, he knew Clarence’s and his brother’s way, young Clarence Thomas and his brother’s way out of dirt poorness and the lifestyle they were living was education. And so he saved every penny he had to send a young Clarence Thomas and his brother to a Catholic school where the nuns—and Justice Thomas attributes much of his education to the nuns, not only education, book education, but life education.

And the third thing that, and this is a quote from Justice Thomas, that his grandfather taught him is to assert his right, and I’m quoting, “to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I am black, to state that I’m a man, free to think for myself and do as I please, and to assert that I am a judge and I will not be consigned to the unquestioned opinions of others.”

So three important things. One, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. Two, a young K-8 education may be the most important education you’re going to have because those are your formative years. And third, don’t let others tell you how to think. Be intelligent enough to form your own opinions and then stand by them, but be open to change if you believe you are wrong.

Allen: Well, I love the number of stories that you have told in the book. In all the research that you did and in talking to so many different people about the life and the legacy of Justice Thomas, were there any stories that really stood out to you or that surprised you that you learned, whether it was about his early life or his time at the Supreme Court?

Thapar: I think the thing that surprised me the most, that I knew a little bit of but didn’t realize the depth of, is the amount of care he exhibits for ordinary people in everyday life.

In fact, if I wanted to teach my kids or anyone anything to take away from Justice Thomas, it wouldn’t be his amazing intellect. Of course, that’s God given, in some ways. It wouldn’t be even his work ethic, although, of course, I’d like everyone to emulate that. It would be the fact that when he talks to someone, doesn’t matter who, they’re the most important person in the world.

And let me give you an example. And then you see this in every interaction he has, once you see it through this prism.

I was at Yale with him for a celebration of Justice Thomas, believe it or not, for 25 years on the bench. And afterward, they had a reception. And the faculty was there, many of whom are his critics, but would love to spend two minutes with him. The students were there. Who did he spend most of the time with? The support staff.

And then when we were charged with taking him to a private dinner that the school was hosting, we had to get him away from that reception. We were 30 minutes late to the dinner because Justice Thomas insisted on staying and taking a picture and thanking every support staff person individually. He would take an individual picture with anyone that wanted one.

That’s the type of man he is. He’s not looking over someone’s shoulder to see who’s next. He’s not doing those things. And you know what? That care for people is reflected in his jurisprudence, hence the name “The People’s Justice.”

Allen: Let’s dive into some of that jurisprudence and talk specifically about some of the cases that you detail in the book. And you’ve interviewed so many individuals who have been involved in these cases. Let’s start by talking about the Kelo case.

Thapar: So, Susette Kelo is this woman who’s a little down on her luck. She’s breaking up with her husband. She’s looking for a house. She’s got a job as a paramedic. And she can’t afford what she wants, but what she can afford is a very rundown house in a blue-collar neighborhood.

She wants a view of the river. A view of water was her dream. And she found a house that she thought was perfect. It was so rundown the real estate agent was embarrassed to sell it to her, but Susette was going to buy it no matter what. And she bought it. But she knew to fix the house, she needed a second job. So she went to school to become a nurse, got a nursing degree and put her money into the house, blood, sweat, and tears, doing most of it herself, many things herself.

And she loved it so much, when the house was done, this beautiful house, she had it painted Odessa Pink. She lived in this wonderful blue-collar neighborhood. But at the same time that she had put all this effort into the house, the city of New London was trying to recruit an elite corporation to come to town. And they found a partner in the Pfizer corporation, someone your listeners may have heard of.

And Pfizer and the city of New London agree that Pfizer would take over an old mill site. But Pfizer didn’t want to just come and put what they believed was their wonder drug, Viagra, have a plant for it at the site and office building. They wanted more.

What did they want? They wanted upscale apartments and condos. They wanted a mall with restaurants and nice shopping and a health club. So when their executives came, when their executives stayed there, they would have a nice place to say.

Well, that wouldn’t fit on the site they had. So they wanted to use a process known as eminent domain to take this blue-collar neighborhood, this blue-collar neighborhood where Susette Kelo lived and where people like the Derys, her neighbors, lived. Their family had been there for over a hundred years. They loved the neighborhood so much that when their kids got married, they put a down payment on a house in the neighborhood itself.

Well, Susette Kelo and her neighbors weren’t having it. They were going to fight. And they begged and pleaded, and got a public interest law firm known as the Institute for Justice to take the case. And they fought all the way to the Supreme Court. And it gets to the Supreme Court.

And eminent domain is provided for in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. It says that the government can take your property for public use with just compensation. As Justice Thomas will later explain, that means for things like sidewalks where they take a sliver of your front yard so they can put a sidewalk in, or to widen a road, something the public will truly use.

Well, it gets to the Supreme Court and the city’s argument is that it is a public use, or as they called it, public purpose because the Supreme Court in the ’50s had changed the terms of the Constitution in an opinion known as Berman that I’ll come back to.

The city argued that the Pfizer corporation coming in would increase the tax base. And as a result, that benefited the public purpose. And [Justice Antonin] Scalia—and we put this up. There’s a Twitter page for the book. It’s “The People’s Justice.” If they put it in Twitter, they’ll find it. We put this up because no one believed it.

Justice Scalia asked the city’s lawyer, “So you’re saying if you take from the poor and give to the rich, because the rich will pay more taxes, you’re allowed to do that? That serves a public purpose?” And the answer was “yes.” He was so surprised, he asked it again. And the answer was “yes.” Do you want me to go on and tell you what happened?

Allen: Please do. I’m very curious to hear how Justice Thomas weighed in on this case.

Thapar: So, the opinion comes out, and Susette and the institute were hopeful they would win, but they lost 4 to 5. And the principle dissent was written by Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor. And Justice O’Connor wrote the lead dissent, saying that something like a corporate purpose was not a public purpose, basically. I’m summarizing, and she did a much better job than my summary …

Justice Thomas joined that dissent, but then he wrote separately, he’s the only one that advocated going back to the original meaning of public use. And he pointed out—and the thing that no one talks about is who invited him. The Institute for Justice didn’t ask that they go back to the public use because they thought a corporate purpose was not a public purpose, so they thought this was a better vehicle to win the case. And it makes sense because they didn’t know if they could get five votes to go back. Of course they wanted to, but go back to the original meaning?

But who—the NAACP asked, in an amicus brief, that the court go back to the public meaning. And the reason they did is the Berman case was out of D.C. And the Berman case was used by the District of Columbia to take what they called blighted property and other property for apartment buildings and other things, nicer buildings, and run out the poor.

As Justice Thomas pointed out in his dissent, that when you get away from the original meaning, it often has unintended consequences. And this book shows that over and over, like the New York Times v. Sullivan chapter.

But to come back to this case, he points out that in Berman, 97% of the people who were displaced were black. He points out that when we get away from the original meaning, all sorts of things happen that the public doesn’t even understand.

And he said this, and I’m quoting him, by changing the standard from public use to public purpose, he says, and now I’m quoting, “against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation is for a ‘public use.’”

And then I love this quote. And I have to read it, and then I’m going to stop talking. I’m sorry. You can tell I care about this case. “Something has gone seriously or awry with this court’s interpretation of the Constitution,” Justice Thomas warned. “[Though] citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.”

And what he’s saying there is the Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures inside your homes, but apparently, after Kelo, the government can take your home for a public use that is suspiciously agreeable to powerful corporations.

Allen: Do we know what happened as a result to the people in that town who were forced to have to give up their homes?

Thapar: In the aftermath, they level all the homes. The people have to leave. Of course, the Institute for Justice made sure they got fair compensation.

But what I would ask any of your listeners is, would it be fair to take away a home you love, that your family’s been in, everything else just because they paid you what may be market value, which usually isn’t what you get, by the way?

And the chapter talks about some horrific incidents of cities using eminent domain to run out the poor. And they don’t even give them enough that they can buy a new house because, as we all know, house prep values go up. But what happens is Pfizer comes in, and then eight years later, they leave. And Susette Kelo and the Derys, and the other people who lived in that blue-collar neighborhood, today, that neighborhood is a baron field.

And I went to New London and took a picture of where Susette Kelo’s home stood, and I put it in the book because I wanted the readers to see what happens when we get away from the original meaning of the Constitution. It often harms the little guy.

Remember the new criticism, the criticism that you so often hear is the originalism favors corporation over consumers, the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the government over the little guy. This book, in the stories of the cases, proves the opposite is true.

Now, I challenge your listeners to go out and Google where it reports at the time that Justice Thomas took up the NAACP’s view, that Justice Thomas championed poor, black, and other minorities individuals’ views, that Justice Thomas’ original meaning of the Constitution would favor the common man over government and corporations like Pfizer.

Allen: And I think there’s so many cases that you just do such a phenomenal job in the book of detailing and showing the ways that Justice Thomas has sought time and time again to hold to that really intended meaning in the Constitution and originalism. And yet despite that, he has faced so much criticism over the years. He’s even been called an Uncle Tom. Why do you think he has faced such criticism?

Thapar: That’s a great question that I just can’t figure out. I almost think they need—critics need a caricature because they don’t like originalism. Why? What is originalism at its heart? It returns the power to the American people.

So the Constitution is a contract. It’s a contract between the American people and their government. We’re given our God-given rights. And in exchange for a slight intrusion on them, we created a limited federal government. And that limited federal government allowed the federal government to do certain defined things, but it retained everything else to the American people.

That doesn’t mean—when people say, “Oh my gosh, we have to amend the Constitution. That’s so hard,” that’s simply not true. We see with Title VII and other things that you can pass laws by engaging your fellow neighbor, getting Congress to do things, getting your city council to do things, getting the state to do things.

And so it’s simply not true that you can’t do things if the court doesn’t do it. The court, by honoring the words of the American people, returns the power to the people. And I think it’s, who do you trust at the end of the day?

Justice Scalia had this great saying, and it was kind of tongue in cheek, but he meant it. And it’s that with the issues of today, if they’re not provided for in the Constitution, I would trust nine people randomly chosen out of the phone book rather the nine people in this building. And what he’s saying is, “I trust the American people.”

Why does Justice Thomas so strongly trust the American people? Because remember, they want people like him and me to say, “No, the American people are bad. The American people are this. Why do we trust them?”

I’m the child of immigrants. My dad came here with a one-way ticket and a $5 bill. Justice Thomas grew up dirt poor. We trust him because people like he and I in this country, if you roll up your sleeves and do your best, can rise to the highest levels.

Allen: What have the long-term effects been, the larger implications of Justice Thomas’ jurisprudence been on the Supreme Court as a whole? How has his perspective shifted and changed the Supreme Court, or has it?

Thapar: Since he’s gotten on the court, I think there’s been this misperception. The critics have always been looking for who could be controlling Clarence Thomas. I’ve got the answer for him. Clarence Thomas is controlling Clarence Thomas.

Remember what his grandfather taught him? See, this all comes back to that. His grandfather taught him he could always think for himself. He doesn’t listen to anyone other than the American people, through the words of the laws they enact. And so he’s like a rock, right? He’s a constant. And everything else might move, but he’s constant.

Well, what has happened over time is he stays constant and people see the wisdom of his ways. And so the courts have slowly moved toward that. What does that do? That returns the power where it belongs, out of government and back to the people. And so there’s a beauty in that that I think more and more people will realize and I hope this book will convey.

Allen: The book is “The People’s Justice: Clarence Thomas and the Constitutional Stories that Define Him.” It is out and available now. You can get your copy at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, wherever books are sold. Judge, thank you so much for your time today. We truly appreciate your insights.

Thapar: Well, thank you for having me. And I’m sorry I talked so much. You got me excited.

Allen: It’s wonderful to hear these stories that so often I think are missed by the public. And so we truly appreciate you joining us today.

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The post How Clarence Thomas Went From a Childhood Sleeping on Dirt Floor to Becoming ‘the People’s Justice’ appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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