“It’s not my Constitution to play around with.”
I’ve read many quotations from Clarence Thomas over the years, especially now, as he marks 25 years as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But this particular one, drawn from something he said to The Wall Street Journal a few years ago, really struck home with me.
It cuts to the heart of why he’s been such an outstanding member of the high court during the last quarter century. Simply put, he gets it.
Unlike other justices, past and present, with a lamentable skill for discovering all kinds of unexpected “rights” and hidden meanings in our nation’s charter, Justice Thomas does something quite radical: he sticks to the actual text.
“I don’t feel I have any particular right to put my gloss on your Constitution,” he said. “My job is simply to interpret it.”
I like that — “your Constitution.” As in “We the People.” Justice Thomas recognizes that it’s the document by which the governed — you and me — define exactly what the government can and can’t do.
This understanding, I believe, is heavily rooted in his character. I’ve been fortunate enough to know Justice Thomas and his wife, Virginia, for more than 30 years, so I can personally attest to his virtue, both as a Justice and as a man.
Very few people know the “American Dream” quite as well as Justice Thomas. That a man could rise from such humble beginnings in Pin Point, Ga., to sit on the bench of the most powerful court in the world is a true testament to his will, his intelligence, his drive and his perseverance.
It’s also a stirring commentary on the greatness of our nation. In no other country could Clarence Thomas come from where he did, and end up where he is. His is a uniquely American story of triumph in every sense.
His memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” is a remarkable book. The story of how he went from a poverty-stricken existence in the segregated south to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., makes for an eye-opening read.
It all culminates on July 2, 1991, when President Bush nominated him to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. At his swearing in, the president said, “America is blessed to have a man of his character serve on its highest court.”
For 25 years now, Justice Thomas has proved him right. We need more leaders like him in Washington.
Indeed, our country needs individuals of heroic stature who show us, by their example, how to keep our resolve up and our character intact.
“My household was strong, stable and conservative,” he said in a 1987 speech. “God was central. School discipline, hard work, and knowing right from wrong were of the highest priority. These were not issues to be debated by keen intellectuals, bellowed about by rousing orators, or dissected by pollsters and researchers. They were a way of life.”
Surely this helped him weather the furious attacks launched on him by those opposed to his elevation to the Court. Liberals who view the Constitution as an elastic “living document” that can be stretched to achieve any desired outcome were bitter about the nomination.
But Justice Thomas didn’t flinch. He stood up to his critics — the same way he’s been standing up for a quarter century to those who misinterpret the Constitution.
We often hear him criticized for not asking a lot of questions during oral arguments before the Court. In a town filled with showboats, Justice Thomas flouts expectations by quietly and methodically doing his job.
We can’t all be Supreme Court justices, but we can imitate Justice Thomas here. As he once said, “One of the advantages of living in a free, democratic society is that each day we have many opportunities to be leaders simply by leading virtuous lives.”
Let’s hope we follow his example, even as we wish him many, many more years on the Court.
Ed Feulner is founder of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).