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The Supreme Court after Justice Marshall: Clarence Thomas
By 1991, when Thurgood Marshall retired at the age of 83, he was the last strong liberal on the conservative court. Thus it came as no surprise that upon his resignation during the Bush presidency, he was replaced by the conservative African-American Clarence Thomas. Thomas, then 43, was active in the black conservative movement, which held that programs such as welfare, special busing, and affirmative action did more harm than good. He argued that with the exception of a few qualified individuals, the majority of African-Americans only became more dependent on the government. He believed that “African-Americans should help themselves through education, enterprise, work, and self-reliance.”1
When Thomas was accepted into Yale Law University, he was disappointed that part of the reason for his admission was the university’s affirmative action program. He explained, “You had to prove yourself every day because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit.”1 While at Yale, he studied tax and antitrust law because he wanted to prove his competency outside of the more typical black issues.
Thomas’ selection by Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court was not met well by many African-American societies - or by Marshall himself. In his last years Marshall watched as the now conservative court unraveled some of his legacy. Thomas was opposed to the traditional civil rights agenda and to many values that Marshall had fought fiercely to defend. Thomas declared his support for a limited role for the Court and the Constitution. He argued in one case about the amount of force used by a prison guard to subdue prisoners that the prohibition in the Eighth Amendment of cruel and unusual punishment “should not be turned into a national code of prison regulation.”1 In a death penalty case, he stressed the “irrelevance” of the prisoner’s poor background. As a strong opponent to abortion, he wished to overturn Roe v. Wade completely.
Yet Marshall’s legacy does live on. He contributed greatly to the equal-protection theory, not just because of his race, but because of his common-sense approach to the idea of equal treatment under the law. Many of the advances he made in America’s society are taken for granted today - we do not think twice about the sight of white and black children in the same classroom, or living in the same section of the city. There are African-Americans in high positions in the government, the military, in universities, and on boards of major corporations. Our nation is not perfect, but with the unforgettable aid of Thurgood Marshall, we have come a long way.