This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Clarence Thomas's appointment to the Supreme Court. In his first two decades on the bench, Justice Thomas has established himself as the original Constitution's greatest defender against elite efforts at social engineering. His stances for limited government and individual freedom make him the left's lightning rod and the tea party's intellectual godfather. And he is only halfway through the 40 years he may sit on the high court.
Justice Thomas's two decades on the bench show the simple power of ideas over the pettiness of our politics. Media and academic elites have spent the last 20 years trying to marginalize him by drawing a portrait of a man stung by his confirmation, angry at his rejection by the civil rights community, and a blind follower of fellow conservatives. But Justice Thomas has broken through this partisan fog to convince the court to adopt many of his positions, and to become a beacon to the grass-roots movement to restrain government spending and reduce the size of the welfare state.
Clarence Thomas set the table for the tea party by making originalism fashionable again. Many appointees to the court enjoy its role as arbiter of society's most divisive questions—race, abortion, religion, gay rights and national security—and show little desire to control their own power. Antonin Scalia, at best, thinks interpreting the Constitution based on its original meaning is "the lesser evil," as he wrote in a 1989 law journal article, because it prevents judges from pursuing their own personal policies. Justice Thomas, however, thinks that the meaning of the Constitution held at its ratification binds the United States as a political community, and that decades of precedent must be scraped off the original Constitution like barnacles on a ship's hull.
In United States v. Lopez (1995), which held unconstitutional a federal law banning guns in school zones as beyond Congress's powers, Justice Thomas called on the court to reverse decades of case law that had transformed the legislature's authority "[t]o regulate Commerce . . . among the several States" into what he described as a limitless "police power." He would restrict federal laws to commercial activity that crosses state borders and end national control over manufacturing and agriculture.
Any case that allows Congress to regulate anything that has "a substantial effect" on interstate commerce "is but an innovation of the 20th century," wrote Justice Thomas in a concurring opinion. Taken to its conclusion, his view would drive a stake into the heart of the New Deal state, which would have to return policy over welfare, health care, education, labor and crime to the states where they belong. Tea partiers who oppose wasteful federal spending and want a smaller national government are following in Justice Thomas's intellectual footsteps.