U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently reflected on his confirmation ordeal and said that “after going through all those difficulties, the members of the court were just wonderful people to a person.”
But others tell a different story that may foreshadow how Justice Brett Kavanaugh will be received when he joins his new colleagues in the wake of a similarly explosive confirmation process.
Justice Harry Blackmun “gave him a frosty reception at first,” according to “Supreme Conflict,” a 2007 book by Jan Crawford about the court. Thomas also felt that Justice Anthony Kennedy was “talking down to him” and was “off-putting.” Blackmun and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thought Thomas should be “more deferential to his senior colleagues,” according to Crawford.
Liberal law clerks, Crawford wrote, viewed Thomas with “ill-disguised contempt.” They called Christopher Landau, one of Thomas’s clerks, “justice,” implying that Landau, not Thomas, was “running the show.” Landau is now a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and a veteran Supreme Court advocate.
Legal Speak pod: Paul Clement Is Stoked for Brett Kavanaugh and the Term Ahead
The fact that Thomas and his wife, Virginia, sat for a People magazine interview that was published on his first day on the bench “didn’t help Thomas’s cause with his new colleagues,” Crawford wrote.
But Thurgood Marshall, the liberal justice Thomas replaced, was friendlier according to the book, telling Thomas, “I had to do what I had to do in my time. You have to do what you have to do in your time.”
Over time, other justices got along with Thomas, to the point where Justice Elena Kagan said, “I love Justice Thomas” in 2013. He is popular not only among his colleagues but also with court employees.
If nothing else, that shift reflects the reality that justices are keenly aware of: They will be working with their colleagues for years or decades, so there is no profit in bearing grudges.
“I think the justices care very much about collegiality and not purely for the sake of collegiality. They think it’s important for people who disagree with each other to work together,” Carolyn Shapiro, co-director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at Chicago-Kent College of Law, told Reuters.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation statements—railed on Democrats, and saying claims of sexual misconduct against him arose as part of an “orchestrated” hit by liberals—drew criticism from liberals and conservatives alike. And his remarks—which he walked back in part in a Wall Street journal op-ed—flew in the face of justices’ efforts to portray the court as a nonpartisan institution.
Just before Kavanaugh was confirmed, Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at Princeton University about the need to avoid partisanship on the court. “It’s just the nine of us,” Kagan added. “We all have a vested interest in having good relations with one another.” And retired Justice John Paul Stevens said Kavanaugh’s outburst disqualified him for being a Supreme Court justice.
But still, Kavanaugh could have an easier time than Thomas in getting past any animus justices might have about Kavanaugh’s hyper-partisan confirmation statements.
Kavanaugh is well known by many of the justices and he clerked at the high court, unlike Thomas. Kavanaugh taught at Harvard Law School at the behest of Kagan, then the law’s school’s dean. And as an aide in the Bush White House, he helped John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito Jr. in their own confirmation proceedings.
Even so, Kavanaugh may still experience the awe and nervousness about joining the highest court in the land. When the late Justice William Brennan Jr. joined the court in 1956, he remarked that “it’s quite a frightening experience to come here for the first time.” Brennan added that he felt like “the mule entered in the Kentucky Derby—I don’t expect to distinguish myself, but I do expect to benefit from the association.”