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Tilting at Windmills

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April 13, 2009

CLARENCE THOMAS SEES TOO MANY RIGHTS.... Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas doesn't say much. According the NYT's Adam Liptak, he hasn't even asked a question from the bench in over three years.

But he answered some questions the other night in a D.C. ballroom from winners of a high school essay contest. Thomas noted, among other things, that he thinks Americans have too many rights.

The evening was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.

'Today there is much focus on our rights," Justice Thomas said. "Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights."

"I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances," he said. "Shouldn't there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?"

It's not at all encouraging when one of the nine members of the Supreme Court complains publicly about a "proliferation of rights." I hesitate to even wonder which protections Americans currently enjoy that Thomas would like to see taken away.

In fairness, I should note that I didn't hear the full context. According to the NYT piece, Thomas went on to complain that "many" Americans have to come to believe "they're owed air conditioning, cars, telephones, televisions." He forgot to tell us to stay off his lawn.

All kidding aside, when Thomas said there's been "a proliferation of rights," was he talking about a perceived "right" to modern amenities and conveniences? If so, I'm afraid the high court justice doesn't know what a "right" is. After all, when was the last time you heard someone above the age of 14 claim the "right" to have 10,000 BTUs and a 50-inch flatscreen, as opposed to say the "right" to vote or to a fair trial?

At an event devoted to the Bill of Rights, one would like to think a sitting Supreme Court justice wouldn't throw around rhetoric like this.

As for Thomas' call for "our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities," Adam Serwer added, "Funny, I don't remember there being a 'Bill of Obligations' or a 'Bill of Responsibilities' in the Constitution of the United States of America. But since Thomas is an originalist who interprets the Constitution the way the founders intended, I suppose it must be in there somewhere."

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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Comments

Good god, he's an asshole. Did he mention exactly which Americans it was who "believe they're owed air conditioning, cars, etc.??

Remember, it was Blue Dog Dems who put this nincompoop on the SCOTUS.

Posted by: mars on April 13, 2009 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder how many cases come up all the way to the Supreme Court that even reflect Thomas's grievences that he listed? I'm guessing none, but something must have set him off to speak like this. It seems out of place.

Posted by: Mick on April 13, 2009 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Of course we *do* have obligations: we call them "laws". And most of the Constitution is concerned with with the elaborate process and institutions for creating and interpreting laws. You'd think that a
long-time member of the body with the final responsibility for interpreting the laws might have noticed such a thing.

Anyhow, let's hope Justice Thomas is sufficiently
tired of his duties that he retires soon and settles down to watch Saving Private Ryan in his basement
for the rest of his cranky life. That would be
best for all of us.

Posted by: Richard Cownie on April 13, 2009 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

I should be the last person to agree with Justice Thomas, but is a statement of obligations or responsibilities such a bad thing? Ask not what your country can do for you...

Posted by: KTinOhio on April 13, 2009 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK


I agree w/ Thomas: I'm worried that there are many unqualified dimwits out there who believe they're owed a seat on the Supreme Court.

Posted by: crater on April 13, 2009 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

All those darn rights in the Bill of Rights, what were our Founding Fathers thinking? It clearly wasn't the original intent of the Founding Fathers for the Founding Fathers to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were always presumptuous a-holes.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on April 13, 2009 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, insofar as any democratically codified list of responsibilities would almost necessarily include larger social responsibilities, most progressives would probably be fine with this mythical Bill of Obligations. Truth is, liberals don't have nearly the problem with discussions of personal responsibility that conservatives have with social responsibilities. Clarence Thomas is the one who would probably be most bothered by the sort of discussion he suggests we should have.

Posted by: brent on April 13, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

A "Bill of Obligations" ... you mean like national service or something? Oh that's right, that would be evil (see Bachman, Michelle "reeducation camps").

A "Bill of Responsibilities" ... like paying your taxes? Can't do that either (see, Norquist, Grover "and BS he spouts).

Posted by: petorado on April 13, 2009 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Great, let's repeal the 13th amendment for that libidinous imbecile and put him to work in the fields. And the 8th, so we can whup em when he gets above hisself with ideas about laws and shit.

Posted by: long dong silver on April 13, 2009 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

Well, there are those who think, say, requiring higher fuel-efficiency standards would be a violation of their property rights. Or those "tea party" protesters who think they have a right to lower taxes. Funny, though, that the only way I can read Thomas complaints about whiners who misunderstand their rights is as a criticism of conservatives.

Posted by: Jurgan on April 13, 2009 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

I should be the last person to agree with Justice Thomas, but is a statement of obligations or responsibilities such a bad thing? Ask not what your country can do for you...

Regardless of whether it's a good idea(I wouldn't mind a voting requirement), it's not in the Constitution. Besides, the Constitution is more appropriately focused on the limits of government power, rather than requiring various sorts of specific conduct from the citizens.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on April 13, 2009 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe he was talking about the percieved right to own an arsenal of weapons worthy of a third world drug lord... nah, probably not.

Posted by: GP on April 13, 2009 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

The Constitution/Bill of Rights specifically set forth certain enumerated rights and also reference unenumerated rights. Thomas presumably is complaining about the latter. Perhaps if the Supreme Court were more specific regarding such unenumerated rights, We the People would have a better idea of what are rights are. Serwer correctly points out that the Constitution/Bill of Rights do not set forth a "Bill of Responsibilities" or a "Bill of Obligations," although there may be implied certain responsibilities/obligations of "We the People." Maybe Thomas and the other Justices could spell them out, preferably unanimously rather than 5-4 as in the Heller Second Amendment case. The Heller 5-4 decision is leading to a proliferation of guns - witness yesterday's feature on "60 Minutes." Nice work, Clarence.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on April 13, 2009 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Steve -- you missed the most annoying and egregious thing Thomas said:

"He continued: Or how can you not reminisce about a childhood where you began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom?"

Ah, for the good ol' days, when nobody gave a rat's ass about Jews or Muslims or non-believers or anyone other than mainstream Christians.

Now, I dimly recall that part of Thomas' education may have been in private/religious schools or colleges, but I'm fairly sure he attended public schools at some point growing up dirt poor in Pin Point, GA, or wherever. In any event, his quote makes it sound like he's longing for the good ol' days when Christianity was thrust in every school-child's face.

What a jackass.

Posted by: J on April 13, 2009 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I'm confused as to where Thomas is going with this. Obligations and responsibilities seem to imply, at least, taxes. Coming from someone who's despised by the left and revered by conservatives, this doesn't fit in with what I would assume to be his legal philosophy.

Posted by: Joe K on April 13, 2009 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Due to his always voting with Scalia, I appreciate Clarence Thomas. He is correct in being an 'originalist' in his belief that the Constitution should be literal interpreted in its original form.

As a real 'true believer' in the Original Constitution, it is incumbent upon Thomas to resign from the Supreme Court. Our original (real) Constitution does not provide for blacks or women to have the right to vote - only white male property owners! The alternative is to allow Thomas to remain on the bench, but not have a vote.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on April 13, 2009 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

It is pretty clear by now that Clarence Thomas is just dumb. He never says anything on the court because he knows he would make a fool of himself. I have never heard him give a coherent answer to any legal question.

He's really just a poster child for the cultural resentment of the hillbilly Christianist Right, obsessed with flags and crucifixes, sitting in his dark basement listening to the speeches of Patton and watching old war movies.

Posted by: Jim on April 13, 2009 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

there's enough out there with which to bash thomas. without the full context of his remarks, i'm inclined to give the guy a break on this one however. these were high school kids, not a group of constitutional scholars.if he's making an argument that the bill of rights is too broad, that's one thing. if he's saying that too many of us expect things without any obligation to give back to our society, that's a whole 'nother argument. and its an argument liberals have been making in regards to taxes, the war in iraq etc.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on April 13, 2009 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

something must have set him off to speak like this.

Participation in movement conservatism.

It's a reaction based in a psychological difficulty in dealing with change and gray areas, rather than one grounded in logic or doctrine.

Posted by: Elvis Elvisberg on April 13, 2009 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote: "After all, when was the last time you heard someone above the age of 14 claim the 'right' to have 10,000 BTUs and a 50-inch flatscreen ..."

Well, various right-wing Republican commenters on this blog have at various times proclaimed that they have a "right" to burn unlimited amounts of fossil fuels and emit unlimited amounts of CO2 pollution to power their gas-guzzling SUVs and energy-inefficient, poorly insulated McMansions.

Of course they appear to be of a mental age lower than 14.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 13, 2009 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Just a guess, but I bet he feels women don't have the right to defend themselves from sexual advances in the workplace.

Some would say this man shames our judiciary by his presence.

Posted by: JJC on April 13, 2009 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

"I hesitate to even wonder which protections Americans currently enjoy that Thomas would like to see taken away."
Clearly not the right to be a total douchebag.

Posted by: bobbo on April 13, 2009 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

He continued: ?Or how can you not reminisce about a childhood where you began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom??"

Back in those good old days, the black kids and the white kids were of course marching in completely segregated schools....

Posted by: Stefan on April 13, 2009 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

They hate us because we are free.

Posted by: Hoosier Paul on April 13, 2009 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

________________

Emperor Joseph II: "My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. ..."

Clarence Thomas: "Kids listen up, don't get me wrong, I love to live here. Our legal system is the envy of the world and our founders were brilliant. And there are simply too many rights, that's all. ... "

Posted by: Kurt on April 13, 2009 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Clarence Thomas:

"Hey all you rights! Get out of my court!"

Posted by: David W. on April 13, 2009 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

It is typical of conservatives to begin with the premise that people who have grievances based on violations of their rights are just whiners. This is why Thomas never should have been permitted on the court. He is as fair and balanced as Faux news.

Posted by: candideinnc on April 13, 2009 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

One of the arguments against including a bill of rights in the constitution was that it would be used at a later time to limit individual rights to those listed. Seems like the founders had Judge Thomas in mind.

Robert Bork made a similar statement during his confirmation hearings for which even as staunch conservative as former Rep. Mickey Edwards of OK has criticized him (on Bill Moyers journal).

Posted by: Kim Bethards on April 13, 2009 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'd suggest that Thomas should have three fifths of a vote, but 4.6 to 4 is no different than 5 to 4.

Posted by: KTinOhio on April 13, 2009 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

if he is an originalist, does that mean in decisions he only gets three fifths of a vote?

BOOM goes the dynamite!

Sorry. That snark was totally racist, and against my better angels. I guess I'm exercising my unenumerated right to be an ass-hat.

Posted by: Unca Paul on April 13, 2009 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

Does this seem like a man with a judicial temperament? Not to me. He has axes to grind and major chips on his shoulders; since in his mind he overcame poverty and racism all by himself, he thinks no one else deserves any help. He seems most resentful of people who think there may be obstacles of class and race in their way. And he sounds as if his brain is just tired of thinking all those deep, Supreme Court-type thoughts he has to process in his rigorous 40-(if that)hour-a-week job. He was bad to begin with, and he's worse now. Of course, he'll never quit with a Democrat in office, so we're stuck with him for another 8 years.

Posted by: jrw on April 13, 2009 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

And KTinOhio beat me to it. Dang!

Posted by: Unca Paul on April 13, 2009 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Let's put this in the big picture, the words and the type of person that the speaker has demonstrated himself to be.
Clarence Thomas is a Republican Movement Conservative. Time after time these folks have demonstrated:

Intellectual dishonesty - "Pro-Life" while also pro-war and pro-capital punishment;

Double Standards - "Get the government out of our business" and taking away a woman's right to reproductive rights, or even her choice in spouses (can't have those mixed marriages), or bail out the wealthy (i.e. bankers), but screw the ordinary people facing job loss and/or foreclosure;

Irony-free existence: leaders like Karl Rove accusing Obama of "Politicizing"... well, anything, David Vitter claiming to protect family values, "Originalist" SCOTUS members and Bush v. Gore.

Clarence Thomas is a clown. It is truly sad that we have clowns like him in any branch of the government, but he's there. I have to agree with RepublicanPointOfView on the proper action for Thomas to take, albeit not for the same reasons.

Posted by: BuzzMon on April 13, 2009 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

CLARENCE THOMAS SEES TOO MANY PORN VIDEOS

Fixed.

Posted by: Screamin' Demon on April 13, 2009 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

I should be the last person to agree with Justice Thomas, but is a statement of obligations or responsibilities such a bad thing? Ask not what your country can do for you...

Oddly enough, my reaction was similar to KT's. I might be completely wrong, but I took his comments to be less about constitutional law than a general sense of entitlement that we, as Americans, seem to have. mudwall jackson's 2:44 comment, noting the fact that he was speaking to a room full of high schoolers, seems to suggest as much. And if that's what he meant, I wouldn't disagree with him.

Posted by: junebug on April 13, 2009 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a little disturbed by the people who don't think a 'statement of obligations or responsibilities' would be a bad thing for our government to have.

We have taxes and laws, and that's the end of where I want the government poking around in my responsibilities and obligations. I will, of my own accord, determine what those are for myself. It's way too close to them telling me what god to worship and morals to have.

Posted by: doubtful on April 13, 2009 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

Or how can you not reminisce about a childhood where you began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom?

Believe it or not, the man has written a memoir and he states that he went to grammar school in Savannah, Georgia called "Haven" and it was indeed segregated. In this book, he also claims that there was no truth to the Anita Hill allegations, so take it FWIW, but there is an actual written testimony of some kind out there, if anyone is willing to look it up - the Amazon viewer only shows the first and the ninth chapter of a book for which Bill Kristol speaks admirably on the back.

Posted by: DBaker on April 13, 2009 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

I guess "Saving Private Ryan" is a step up from the type of stuff he used to rent at the video store, which was more along the lines of "Shaving Ryan's Privates."

And was I the only one who was a little creeped out by the the idea that one of our Supreme Court Justices is still overawed by the miracle that is the dishwasher?

Posted by: gradysu on April 13, 2009 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

Reading the original NYT story, I couldn't help but get the impression that Thomas suffers from depression. He certainly did not sound like a very happy person.

Posted by: Fred on April 13, 2009 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

"our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities,"

Those are taxes, and it's patriotic to pay them. Also our obligations to serve on juries, perform community service in high school, and be drafted into the military in time of war. Perhaps you could add our obligation to reduce our fuel consumption.

Perhaps he was referring instead to our obligations to raise our children and support our spouses. A few people believe that there is a right to collect money without an obligation to work for it; perhaps Justice Thomas was disagreeing with those people.

Posted by: marketeer on April 13, 2009 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

If I remember correctly, Madison originally saw no need for a Bill of Rights because he worked from the premise that the only powers the government would have would be the ones that were specifically enumerated- the citizens automatically had every right that wasn't explicitly given to the government. So much for Thomas's originalist claims. It's a lame justification he uses when it's convenient for him to, so he can impose his own ideas on everyone else. In the end, he's intellectually dishonest, not dumb.

As to obligations, didn't the French at one point in their revolution declare a list of rights and obligations? Not a crazy idea at all, as long as you can vote on them and amend them.

Posted by: Tim H on April 13, 2009 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

I believe we currently have such a thing and it's called the monthly statement.

Posted by: Capt Kirk on April 13, 2009 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Fuck obligations. Until we get the Constitution back - the Fourth Amendment too - my sole obligation is to undermine, subvert and sabotage the parasitic banana republic feeding off this land mass that used to be a country.

Posted by: oblongate this on April 13, 2009 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with a bill of responsibilities and obligations is that this was done in the Middle Ages and was used as a legal bludgeon by Feudal Lords on their serfs and it became the legal cover for the Feudal system.

When many RW wingnuts talk about this, this is what they mean. Not some simple social responsibilities, but rather a return to what many RW wingnuts perceive as the good old days.

Posted by: Former Dan on April 13, 2009 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Who cares what Uncle Thomas thinks? He has to check with Scalia before he has a thought!

Posted by: Stan Barnett on April 13, 2009 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

"Responsibilities" and/or "Obligations" to whom? Are we to be slaves? The Constitution is about the form of our government, it's duties & powers (in other words, what we authorize it to do) and it's about our Rights and how they might or might not be infringed. It is a written exposition of our declaration that we are free, of how we will work together to govern the nation and of how we will empower each other for the general welfare.

Why does a Justice of our Supreme Court not know what our Constitution is and WHY it is that way?

Posted by: MarkH on April 13, 2009 at 9:25 PM | PERMALINK

I think Clarence Thomas was suggesting we have a Bill of Wrongs.

Perhaps a Bill of Lefts?

Posted by: Joel on April 13, 2009 at 9:34 PM | PERMALINK

Thomas seems caught in some terrible time warp where he is constantly fighting wars long since over. At a time when the most salient issue is whether we have allowed an over-powerful and un-accountable upper financial class to flourish which threatens our economy and our democracy all of this whining about poor people manufacturing rights on order to score a few flat screen TVs seems terribly dated and out of touch.

Posted by: Ted Frier on April 14, 2009 at 6:51 AM | PERMALINK

"Reading the original NYT story, I couldn't help but get the impression that Thomas suffers from depression. He certainly did not sound like a very happy person.

Posted by: Fred on April 13, 2009 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK
" If you were this asshole, wouldn't you be depressed? Jesus, I'd have shot myself, by now.

Posted by: brantl on April 14, 2009 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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