Justice Clarence Thomas. Few public figures have endured the pressure, press, and public responsibility of this man. In the public eye, the Justice seems a paradox. Those who know the Justice well describe him as the “one justice who knows everyone” and recount stories of his friendship and compassion for people from all walks of life. In contrast, the Justice’s critics frequently disclaim him as the “cruelest justice.” For the average citizen, these conflicting signals can be confusing: How can one judge which characterization of Justice Thomas is true?
In his recent book, “The People’s Justice,” Judge Amul Thapar offers readers an opportunity to engage with this question. The author presents evidence for readers to evaluate and conclude whether, in fact, the Justice’s approach to law “favor[s] the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak, and corporations over consumers” or delivers “equal justice under law.” In the introduction, Judge Thapar makes the case that Justice Thomas’s principled approach champions the Constitution and the people it protects. In other words, the author argues that the Justice’s approach furthers the public good, and more often than not, the good of the parties. This is true, the author asserts, even though the Justice’s commitment to apply the law equally to all will not necessarily result in the most sympathetic party prevailing.
The book is worth reading for its strong case in defense of one of the great figures of our time. Additionally, all readers will be edified by the author’s legal insights, succinct summaries of key legal doctrines, and his skillful and subtle articulation of the judicial process itself.
“The People’s Justice” focuses on twelve specific constitutional stories. For each, the storyteller, himself a revered judge, follows the classic pattern of the judicial process. Each of the books’ twelve constitutional stories begins by explaining the events and legal questions that led to the issue—the controversy ultimately presented to the court. Each story also includes a brief outline of the applicable rule—the legal doctrines and principles according to which the controversies must be decided. The stories then proceed to Justice Thomas’ understanding of the applicable rule and the issue and facts before the court—the application. After completing this principled analysis, each story concludes with the holding—the case’s outcome.
The majority of the book is dedicated to these stories. The book is often a page-turner because the author’s holistic approach to each story so effectively compels the reader, introducing the characters and recounting their challenges, joys, and pain. Readers are drawn in to the story of a single mother, struggling to defend her home against a commercial use of the eminent domain doctrine. The case powerfully demonstrates the life-changing impact of what might seem initially a dry property-law concept. The reader is alternately saddened and angered by the story of an ambitious young female performer, attempting to vindicate her rights after being harassed and assaulted by a powerful man early in her career. The dramatic tension of a case in which principles of free speech are invoked to defend the production of violent video games leaves the reader with a racing heart and a better appreciation of the high stakes courts face when navigating public safety and democratic principles. By entering into these stories, the reader comes to appreciate how a justice’s responsibilities transcend common political “camps” and rhetoric. The stories demonstrate how, particularly in today’s culture, such responsibility requires heroic virtue, principles, and firm commitment to the rule of law.
After recounting these stories, the author closes the argument by inviting the reader to conclude that the evidence demonstrates that Justice Thomas is a prudent judge, faithful to principles and wise in their application. The author challenges the reader to transcend the popular, oversimplified views of the Justice and consider a more nuanced view: that a Justice can be both faithful to principle and compassionate and sensitive to those in need.
Skeptics of the Justice may find themselves skeptical of the arguments made and the conclusion. However, even skeptics will benefit from the stories presented because of their clear legal analysis and illustrations of the complexities of cases presented to the Supreme Court. Even skeptics will be compelled to acknowledge that, although Justice Thomas is unfailingly committed to the rule of law, he is also always aware of a case’s human impact.
One would expect a work by a revered judge about a Justice to not only make an effective argument but to do so with a special brilliance. This work does not disappoint. In addition to the compelling storytelling in the book, the work is also rich with legal instruction, articulations of the judicial process, and a focus on the virtues needed for “right judgment.”
One of the most delightful aspects of the book is the author’s deft explanations of the legal doctrines key to the Justice’s judicial philosophy. With the skill of an artist, the author explains, succinctly and in plain English, some of the most complex concepts and principles of our legal system. These principles include originalism, incorporation, and the Takings Clause.
Perhaps only a reader who has spent time in the trenches of legal research can fully appreciate the author’s accomplishment here. The author leads his readers, whether lay or legal, through these complex concepts so smoothly that the reader does not even notice the intellectual hurdles he or she has just cleared. With these clear explanations, the reader is equipped to engage with these concepts and choose his or her own informed perspective.
Additionally, throughout the book, the author recognizes and explains the virtues essential to the role of the judge and the Justice’s practice of these virtues. Courage figures prominently among them. Judge Thapar notes that the world often views case law in terms of its outcomes, rather than the integrity of the legal analysis. Despite this pressure, the Justice focuses on right application of the law, rather than pleasing any factions within the public. Because he applies principles without reference to a particular agenda, public disapproval is constant for the Justice. Likewise, prudence must be practiced to a heroic degree. The constitutional stories clearly illustrate the gravity of each case and the need to apply the right principles to the facts before the Court.
“The People’s Justice” both edifies and engages its readers and provides needed evidence in defense of a public figure who is too often the target of conclusory allegations, whether favorable or critical. The book’s union of legal analysis and compelling storytelling make the work an interesting and worthwhile read for all audiences, whether legal professionals, law students, or engaged citizens. Ultimately, through “The People’s Justice,” a reader can, in a sense, accompany Justice Thomas as he seeks to carry out his responsibility as a steward of “equal justice under law” and, by doing so, better equip him or herself to take up his or her share of this responsibility and practice the “courage to assert [the truth] . . . and stand firm in the face of the constant winds of protest and criticism.”
The views stated are the author’s alone.
Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at email@example.com.