John Roberts Is Chief Justice, But Clarence Thomas Runs The Show

( John Roberts may be the chief justice, but conservative Justice Clarence Thomas is the one who holds the most power on the Supreme Court.

As the high court returned this week after a normal recess, many media outlets covered this topic. Thomas is the longest-tenured justice currently serving on the Supreme Court, having been appointed to the bench back in 1991.

While he used to be a quiet force on the high court, famously going an entire decade without a single question asked during oral arguments, he has changed his tone in recent years.

James Romoser wrote about the subject for the SCOTUSblog recently, writing:

“When the court tweaked its argument format during the pandemic, Thomas began speaking up. He now interrogates the lawyers during nearly every case, often marking the terrain on which the case will be fought.”

Many of the justices on the court are now deferring to Thomas to begin each of the arguments, before they decide to jump in and ask whatever questions they may have. The rationale here, as Romoser writes, is Thomas “a stickler for politeness, dislikes interrupting the advocates or his colleagues.”

It seems to be much more than just politeness, though. It’s also very symbolic of the fact that Thomas has risen up the rank of importance on the Supreme Court to what is now perhaps the most powerful position — even if he doesn’t have the same title that Roberts does.

It’s been quite the journey for Roberts on the bench. Thomas described himself, in just his second term, as “proudly and unapologetically irrelevant and anachronistic.”

Romoser wrote:

“Back then, his commitment to originalism — the idea that the Constitution’s language should be interpreted solely according to how the words were understood when they were written — made him an ideological oddity, even among many conservatives. And his no-compromises approach alienated moderates like former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“Now, as he enters his 32nd term, his critics surely still see him as anachronistic, but he couldn’t be more relevant. Lower courts, elite appellate law firms and Republican congressional offices are stacked with former Thomas clerks. Under President Donald, no other justice had as many clerks appointed to the federal judiciary or to senior administration positions.”

Today, the court has transformed into a bench that considers originalism, “the default mode of constitutional interpretation … It’s become commonplace at the Supreme Court to lean on obscure 19th-century documents … and appeal to the nation’s deep-seated ‘traditions.'”

It’s taken Thomas years to plant the seeds for this transformation, of course, but all that long, hard and sometimes quiet work is paying off for him. Many of the Supreme Court’s recent controversial decisions — including on abortion and gun rights — were issued on the backs of what Thomas believes.

For conservatives who like his views, this is likely a solid sign of good times ahead. For others who aren’t on board with his ideologies, it’s perhaps quite the opposite.