A liberal's support for Thomas

Guido Calabresi

August 07, 1991|By Guido Calabresi

I AM a Democrat. Since the president and others have started to throw mud on liberals, I have proudly asserted that I am also a liberal.

I despise the current Supreme Court and find its aggressive, willful, statist behavior disgusting -- the very opposite of what a judicious moderate, or even conservative, judicial body should do.

I think it strange that these strict destructionists should be allowed to get away with the claim that they are following the Constitution when, instead, they persistently reach well beyond the issues before them to impose their misguided values on the great charter and on all of us.

Yet I support the nomination of ClarGuidoCalabresience Thomas to that court.


First, because I know him and know he is a decent human being who cares profoundly for his fellows.

He is not the caricature that some of his opponents have put forth.

It is true that he has come to believe that some things we liberals have espoused to help African-Americans (and many other people too) are counterproductive. I think that on the whole he is wrong.

But his conclusion is not so important as the fact that he does not deny that such measures helped him or that the people whom these remedies seek to help are deserving and often desperately need help.

He has not turned his back on those in need, and especially not on African-Americans.

If he had he would be unworthy to sit on the Supreme Court.

What he has done is to conclude, with many others and probably wrongly, that certain measures have done more harm than good.

I wish I could convince him otherwise. Maybe someday someone will.

What matters most, though, is that, unlike many on the court, he does know the deep need of the poor -- especially of poor blacks -- and wants to help.

That will keep him open to argument as a justice should be.

The second reason I support him derives from this direct knowledge of what it is like to be in need.

This court is outrageously homogeneous. It is overwhelmingly made up of gray Republican political hangers-on of virtually identical backgrounds.

They all bring to the court the same life experience and lack thereof.

How can they know what discrimination really means?

How can they understand what fear of police, prosecutorial or state abuse and brutality is?

When they babble that coerced confessions need not make trials unfair; that discrimination must be proved in individual cases and not through statistics; or that a single appeal is adequate even if a defendant is served by a lousy lawyer, they sound like what they are: people who neither through personal experience nor academic thought could ever imagine themselves erroneously crushed by the power of the state.

Thomas, at least, knows better, and someday, in some case, that knowledge will make itself felt.

Of course, there are others as able as Thomas who also know this. And if I were president I would name someone who also shared my views.

But it is a gross illusion to think that this administration will do anything like that any more than the Reagan White House did when Robert Bork was cruelly caricatured and defeated.

What we got then, what we would get now, is someone less able, with less life experience, a gray follower of all that is worst in the court today.

And now, as then, those newspapers and eminent scholars who defeated the nominee will join the bandwagon of support for the nonentity.

In such a person the "offending" views will not stand out against the grayness of his background.

No, I would much rather have someone who does stand out, who holds his or her own views, with which I deeply disagree but who has somewhere, sometime, experienced life and has been willing to stand up against the pack.

Better such a one than someone who will readily blend in and be another anonymous vote for the activist and virulent views now so dominant on the court.

For there is just a chance that such a person may stand up to the pack again and remind us all of what it is like to be poor and friendless and to be facing a hostile state.

Guido Calabresi is dean of Yale Law School.

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