Corey Robin in The New Yorker (photograph by Tasos Katopodis / Getty)
On Friday, June 24th, Justice Clarence Thomas got something he’s sought his entire adult life: recognition. Writing in support of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Thomas recommended that the Court, as a next move, strike down a half century’s worth of “demonstrably erroneous” precedents establishing the right to contraception, the right to same-sex sexual conduct, and the right to same-sex marriage. On television and across the Internet, commentators took notice.
Insiders have long known that Thomas is the right’s pacesetter on the Court, laying out positions that initially seem extreme yet eventually get adopted. For years, Thomas pulled Justice Antonin Scalia—even, on occasion, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—to the right on issues of crime and punishment. His opinions on campaign finance, once seen as recklessly deregulatory, now command a majority. In 1997, Thomas signalled his belief that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, a fringe position that the Court would come to accept, eleven years later, in District of Columbia v. Heller. Even Thomas’s extraordinary claims, in a concurring opinion three years ago, about the racist foundations of abortion and birth control, found their way into a footnote in the Court’s recent abortion decision.