WASHINGTON -- Clarence Thomas, the conservative black jurist tapped by President Bush to fill Thurgood Marshall's seat on the Supreme Court, could provide a unique perspective to the court's deliberations -- that of state governments.
Judge Thomas, who now sits on the federal court of appeals here, served more than two years as assistant attorney general in Missouri, where he handled cases for the revenue department and tax commission.
There Judge Thomas developed an appreciation for state revenue needs. In response to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was being considered for a seat on the appeals court, Judge Thomas included four tax cases as being among the 10 most important he had litigated.
In one, Blue Springs Bowl v. Spradling, Judge Thomas was able to convince the Missouri Supreme Court to allow the state to impose its sales tax on fees paid to bowl at commercial bowling alleys.
In another, L&R Distributing Inc. v. Department of Revenue, Judge Thomas lamented that the Missouri Supreme Court would not allow the state to apply its sales tax to pinball machine receipts, a ruling he called important because "there was a very significant loss of revenue to the state."
Though predictions of how a high court nominee would vote on given issues are notoriously unreliable, Judge Thomas's background as an advocate for state fiscal autonomy suggests he could become one of the strongest voices for states on the court.
Currently, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a former state legislator in Arizona, is the only justice who consistently votes for states.
But Judge Thomas's experience with racism and forced segregation is likely to limit his advocacy of states' rights issues to the financial sphere. In a 1987 article in the Howard University's Howard Law Journal, Judge Thomas called states' rights a "constitutional sideshow."
Before he ascends to the high court, Judge Thomas will face grilling by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is slated to begin confirmation hearings in September. He can expect sharp questioning on such issues as constitutional interpretation, remedying racial discrimination, and abortion.
Though the court is now solidly conservative, some lawmakers have expressed fears that the liberal Justice Marshall's successor could tip the court to the far right. Those fears are heightened because Judge Thomas is just 43 and, if confirmed, could influence the nation's legal affairs well into the 21st century.
Unlike President Bush's only other nominee to the court, Justice David H. Souter, Judge Thomas is anything but a "stealth" candidate. In articles, speeches, and interviews, he has left a lengthy paper trail, one detailing a clearly conservative agenda.
In the Howard University law review article, for example, Judge Thomas espoused a belief in ferreting out the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution by looking to the Declaration of Independence. For Judge Thomas, the Constitution is a fulfillment of the promises made in the Declaration -- a view, adopted earlier by Frederick Douglass, that springs from belief in a "higher," universal law, "the truth of human equality."
Though written in the context of racial equality, the article has implications for the unborn's right to life that suggest to some that Judge Thomas may be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court's 1973 ruling protecting a woman's right to choose abortion. In fact, Judge Thomas in one speech at the Heritage Foundation praised an anti-abortion article as a "splendid example of applying natural law."
Judge Thomas also stirred controversy during his eight years as chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he angered the civil rights establishment because of his approach to discrimination cases.
He has decried the use of quotas and timetables, arguing that they stigmatize blacks and only help the middle class. He also has opposed busing, saying black children will not learn more by sitting next to white children.
Moreover, Judge Thomas -- picking up on themes sounded earlier by Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X -- has urged blacks to open and support black-owned businesses and schools, rather than trust to the civil rights orthodoxy of government-imposed integration.
At the same time, however, he has advocated jail sentences and stiff fines for employers guilty of discrimination.
Russell Galloway, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California, said that though Judge Thomas has been labeled a conservative Republican, it is difficult to say how he would vote on key issues before the court.
"He's way more conservative than Marshall," Mr. Galloway said. "But I think he will be a wild card, or loose cannon, especially in economic cases." He added that Judge Thomas's votes on racial issues could prove surprising.
"He's angry about racial discrimination," Mr. Galloway said. "He's angry at whites, he's angry at blacks, he's angry at liberals, and he's angry at conservatives."
Born into poverty in Pin Point, Ga., Judge Thomas lived his early years in a house without a bathroom. Then he moved in with his grandfather, Myers Anderson, who lived in nearby Savannah, Ga.
Mr. Anderson sent the young Clarence Thomas to an all-black Catholic school run by white nuns. Mr. Anderson and the nuns instilled in Judge Thomas a work ethic that survived the trials of living in the segregated South.
Judge Thomas considered the priesthood but then left Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception Junction, Mo., for Holy Cross College, in Worcester, Mass. There, as the pressures of racism brought his anger to a head, he flirted with the ideas of the Black Panthers.
"We were all militant at some level or another," recalled Stanley E. Grayson, a Goldman, Sachs & Co. vice president. "What one has to recall is that he and I were in the first wave of black students at Holy Cross. Any anger or militance really was a reflection of the times."
Judge Thomas excelled at Holy Cross. "Clarence graduated cum laude," Mr. Grayson said. "He was an exceptional student, worked real hard, and enjoyed learning."
From Holy Cross, Judge Thomas went on to Yale Law School, got a law degree, and ended up working for John Danforth, then Missouri's attorney general and now the "Show Me" State's senior senator and the point man for Judge Thomas's confirmation.
Judge Thomas also worked as an attorney at Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, as a legislative assistant to Sen. Danforth in Washington, and as assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department. He was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1989, and was confirmed in 1990.
Judge Thomas has had a quiet 16 months on the bench, providing a consistently conservative vote, particularly in criminal cases. But legal analysts say Judge Thomas cannot be pigeonholed.
Richard K. Willard, a partner with Steptoe & Johnson and a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, said Judge Thomas "is basically conservative, but he may not be as predictable as assumed. He has quite an independent streak."
Mr. Grayson agreed, arguing that independent thought is one of Judge Thomas's strengths. "Just because Rehnquist or Scalia say something is so doesn't mean Clarence is going to go along with them," Mr. Grayson said, referring to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, strong-willed conservatives.