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“Silent Justice” by John Greenya Barricade Books, 304 pages, $24.95 Tony Mauro, American Lawyer Media’s Supreme Court correspondent, wrote this about Clarence Thomas soon after the justice became visibly emotional during a speech to Savannah, Ga., lawyers: “Supreme Court justices, as a rule, do not cry in public. But Clarence Thomas has done it before and will likely do it again, adding to the distinctive persona that has made him the most interesting justice since William O. Douglas. Ten years into his tenure on the nation’s highest court, Thomas seems to revel in the enigmas he tosses out for Court-watchers to puzzle over.” In a new biography of Thomas, author John Greenya does little to solve enigmas. But that would be asking too much of an author at this stage of Thomas’ life, and without cooperation from Thomas himself. What Greenya does accomplish makes his book worth reading, despite the expected shortcomings. Greenya takes Thomas seriously as a person and as a jurist, consistent with another quotation from Mauro’s article: “On the Court, [Thomas] has defined a deep, clearly personal jurisprudence anchored in an originalism that is receiving some scholarly respect.” Writing a biography of a U.S. Supreme Court justice 10 years into what might be a 50-year term is risky. There is no telling how the jurisprudence of that justice might evolve in decades to come, rendering the early biography useless and perhaps making it look downright silly when viewed from hindsight. Greenya, a free-lance journalist in Washington, D.C., has taken the risk. The portion of the book about Thomas’ term on the Court will soon be superseded. But the portion of the book about Thomas’ life before appointment to the Court will have lasting value. At first, many Supreme Court watchers found it difficult to take Thomas seriously, and so did quite a few authors who preceded Greenya. His appointment by President George Bush in 1991 seemed so obviously political — an African-American to replace the departed Thurgood Marshall; a rigid political conservative, whatever that meant to the commentator using the label; only 43 years old, with scant judicial experience; and, depending on the truth of the testimony during his Senate confirmation hearings, a sexual harasser who perhaps lied under oath about his personal life. Greenya’s book seems to confirm that Thomas lied during the confirmation hearings. Greenya has obtained persuasive information from Rosser Barrett Maddox, the owner of Graffiti, the store where Thomas rented lots of sexploitation videos — the very videos Thomas denied renting when confronted with accusations by lawyer Anita Hill and other women who said they had been victimized. The publisher and author are understandably hyping the information from Maddox; they want this book to sell. It should sell. The revelation is not handled sleazily, but rather included as part of a complicated mosaic that attempts to explain how an underprivileged African-American male from Pin Point, Ga., rose to the nation’s top court at an extraordinarily early age. Some of the explanation can be found in the sponsorship of Thomas by John Danforth while he was still a Republican senator from Missouri. The Danforth-Thomas connection started while the patrician, wealthy Missourian was serving as the state’s attorney general. Although about to graduate from Yale University Law School in 1974, Thomas, unlike many of his Caucasian classmates, was having trouble finding a suitable job. Then, on the law school’s job placement board, he noticed an opening in Jefferson City, in the attorney general’s office. By most accounts, Thomas worked hard and performed well as a Missouri assistant attorney general. The chapter on his time in Jefferson City is filled with interesting anecdotes, including this: “Thomas dressed up his first shared office as a government lawyer, a public servant, with . . . a Georgia state flag, which many people, to Thomas’ delight, mistook for a confederate flag. He also delighted in having fun with, or at the expense of, one of his first office mates, a shy and reserved young Missourian by the name of John Ashcroft.” The then-boisterous Thomas loved to get under the skin of Ashcroft, an intense, straight-laced teetotaler. How times change. When, earlier this year, Ashcroft began his stint as U.S. attorney general, Justice Thomas administered the oath of office. The twists and turns of Thomas’ life before appointment to the Supreme Court have been well-known for a long time. Greenya, however, retells the tale skillfully, adding new tidbits here and there. Most important, Greenya seems free of political ideology and personal feelings when it comes to Thomas. Previous chroniclers of Thomas’ life (in newspapers, magazines, and books) have tended to portray him as a lying, sex-harassing, politically conservative devil without any feeling for others of his race or as a devoutly Christian do-gooder who marches to his own drummer while struggling impressively with the complicated issues that reach the Court. Greenya finds lots of middle ground. Did Thomas lie in his Senate confirmation hearings? Almost certainly about a few matters, but not across the board. Is Thomas’ much-reported silence from the bench during oral arguments a sign of disinterest or lack of intellectual capacity? Almost certainly not. He is slowly developing his own jurisprudence apart from other justices he has been accused of following slavishly. For potential readers who have already decided beyond all doubt that Thomas is either a hero or a villain, this book will be maddening. For potential readers who have strong opinions about Thomas but are willing to revise those opinions on the basis of new evidence, this book will be revelatory. Given all that Thomas is bound to accomplish — for better or worse — in his remaining years on the Court, this book cannot be considered anything more than a rough draft. But a worthy draft it is. Steve Weinberg has written about the U.S. Supreme Court and its justices off and on during four decades. A former Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines, he is now a free-lance journalist in Columbia, Mo.

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