A LOT HAS been said about Judge Clarence Thomas' being black,being from a poor family, being a conservative, being taught by nuns, being a Georgian, but little is being said about what may be his most identifying feature.
He's a baby boomer. The fact that he was born in 1948 may set him more apart from Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was born in 1908, than anything else.
When he takes the oath, he will be the Supreme Court's first baby boomer. That generation started being born in 1946. The nearest to a contemporary on the court for Thomas will be David Souter, who was born in 1939.
The court is getting younger. With Thomas, the average age of the justices will be 62 going on 63. That may not seem young, exactly, but it seems like only yesterday that the court's average age was 71.8 years. That is what it was the day before Chief Justice Warren Burger retired at the end of the term in 1986. Had he stayed on for about a month of the next term, his court would have set the record for old age.
But he didn't, and so the record set on June 2, 1937 of 72.2 years remains in effect.
The appointments of the 1980s that have lowered the court's average age by nine years were all of justices born in the 1930s and thus in their 50s when they took their oaths. Judge Thomas is not only the first nominee in his 40s during the Reagan-Bush era, he is one of a relatively few forty-somethings so honored in modern times.
If you date modern times from the end of the Civil War, you find that only eight of 65 justices were in their 40s when named. Before the war, youthful justices were not so rare. Thirteen of only 36 justices were in their 40s and two others were in their 30s. During the war, Abraham Lincoln named five justices, three in their 40s.
Clarence Thomas is the first nominee not yet 50 since William Rehnquist, who was 47 when he joined the court in 1971. He's the youngest nominee since William O. Douglas in 1939, who was 40 1/2 .
The real significance of his age is not so much that he has generational viewpoint, but that he will presumably serve on the court so long. The average age of the justices who retired in the past decade was 78 years. If Judge Thomas serves till he's 78, he'll have been a justice 34-plus years. Only four of the 105 justices served 34 years. The record of 36 years and seven
months is held by Douglas.
If Thomas serves till he is as old as the justice he replaces was when he retired (Thurgood Marshall, 83), he'll serve 40 years. That would be a new record -- and have him still on the court for the 2030-2031 term.
By the way, the youngest justice ever, Bushrod Washington, was only 36 when he went on the court in 1798. A real legal prodigy, right? Wrong! In the words of a highly respected colleague trying to be generous, "his mind was solid rather than brilliant . . . slow." But his uncle was George Washington.