L.A. Times’s David Savage Publishes Unfair Op-Ed About Justice Thomas — Masquerading as a “News Article”
The L.A. Times‘s David Savage attacks Clarence Thomas this morning, in a “news article” titled Thomas’ rulings contrast meager beginnings. The piece reads like an op-ed by a liberal columnist unfamiliar with the function of the Supreme Court, rather than a news article written by the Supreme Court reporter for a major national newspaper.
The purpose of the article is clear. Thomas recently published his autobiography, which introduced a new generation of people to the compelling story of his struggle to overcome poverty in rural Georgia. Savage’s piece is a naked attempt to undercut the force of Thomas’s story, by arguing that, as a Justice, he is insensitive to the hardships of those who struggle with the very poverty he describes in his book. Here are the opening paragraphs of Savage’s article:
In his new, bestselling memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” Justice Clarence Thomas tells the story of his personal struggle to overcome poverty and racism.
Raised by his grandparents in Savannah, Ga., he credits his success to his grandfather’s strict work ethic and to those who shaped his early life and helped him along the way.
“Their story is my story,” he writes. “Their struggles in the face of futility, their perseverance through accumulated injustices, their resilience in the face of broken promises and dashed dreams.”
His book ends in 1991 when he is confirmed to the Supreme Court and takes the oath to “do equal right to the poor and to the rich.”
But rarely have the hardships of the young Thomas been evident in the opinions of Justice Thomas. In his 16 years on the high court, Thomas has established a stern judicial philosophy that leaves little room for siding with underdogs in disputes with governments or corporations. Often, he has brusquely dissented when the court has ruled in favor of poor people, prisoners or ordinary taxpayers.
The way the article is set up in those paragraphs is clear. According to Savage, Thomas claims he cares about the poor — but he really doesn’t.
The article rests on two seriously flawed assumptions.
The first flawed assumption is that the role of a Supreme Court justice is to side with “underdogs.” It is not. It is to decide what the Constitution and laws say. Clarence Thomas took an oath to “faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon [him] under the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Chief Justice Roberts expressed it well in his confirmation hearings:
ROBERTS: I had someone ask me in this process — I don’t remember who it was, but somebody asked me, you know, “Are you going to be on the side of the little guy?”
And you obviously want to give an immediate answer, but, as you reflect on it, if the Constitution says that the little guy should win, the little guy’s going to win in court before me. But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well, then the big guy’s going to win, because my obligation is to the Constitution. That’s the oath.
The oath that a judge takes is not that, “I’ll look out for particular interests, I’ll be on the side of particular interests.” The oath is to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. And that’s what I would do.
It’s true that, further down in the article, Savage gives voice to the views of Thomas supporters who make this argument. But the structure of the article — from the headline to the way that it is set up in the opening paragraphs quoted above — make it clear that Savage and his editors disagree.
Savage’s second flawed assumption is that Thomas’s early life of hardships ought to make him favor governmental intervention as the proper way to address poverty. Put another way, the assumption is that if Thomas votes against “underdogs” who seek to sue others, then Thomas has no sympathy for their plight.
Even if we were to dismiss as trivial the notion that judges should adhere to the law — even if we were to accept the argument, made by some, that judging is nothing but policy choices dressed up in legalese — that doesn’t mean that the only way to help the poor is to give them government help, or to make it easier for them to sue others.
Many liberals have a hard time understanding this. Many liberals equate “helping the poor” with government handouts, and ensuring that the poor always win every court battle they bring against more powerful interests. Liberals who think this way can’t accept that many conservatives actually care about poor people — but simply have a different view about how they should be helped.
Conservatives believe in self-reliance and hard work. Thomas’s autobiography shows that he was taught these principles by his grandfather. As Jan Crawford Greenburg said in a profile of Thomas:
In conversation today, Thomas often uses a phrase his grandfather told him as a child: “Play the hand you’re dealt.” Thomas’s wife, Virginia, had a bust of his grandfather made when Thomas first joined the Court. On it is a saying Thomas heard often as a child: “Old man can’t is dead. I helped bury him.”
“You know, you’re a little kid. You say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ And he wouldn’t hear it,” Thomas says.
Conservatives like Thomas want the poor to rise out of poverty. They just think that the way to do so is through pluck, determination, and hard work.
Savage’s piece belongs on the op-ed page. Even there, it would merit considerable ridicule. As a “news article,” it’s pure agenda journalism.