Clarence Thomas, the only Black justice on the Supreme Court, was welcomed with a standing ovation May 18 at a ceremony to dedicate an Augusta courthouse named after a civil rights leader. But not everyone in attendance was pleased to see him.
According to the Associated Press, some residents were angered that Thomas, 62, was selected to speak at the grand opening of a courthouse named after civil rights lawyer John “Jack” Ruffin, Jr. Ruffin was the first black chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, and was recognized for his push to integrate local schools. Thomas’ known conservative record and firm stance against affirmative action programs have strained relations with Black residents in his home state.
“The folks that had a vested interest weren’t really consulted,” said David Watkins, Richmond County, Ga. state court judge, told the AP. “Look, imagine you invite someone to your house to spend the night and you don’t ask your wife, and it may be someone she didn’t agree with. Would that go well?”
In the past year, the affiliation of Thomas’ wife with the tea party movement has surfaced. Critics have also called for him to sit out of the anticipated court fight over President Obama’s health care reform act, as his wife publicly criticized the legislation. These controversies have infuriated residents of Augusta.
James L. Kendrick, a leader in Augusta’s Black community said, “ has a tough relationship with his native state.”
“In most cases and by the standard of a lot of Black people, Justice Thomas voted to the opposite of what they felt was good,” Kendrick told the AP. “People feel betrayed by him.”
During his speech, Thomas addressed public criticism and said judges should not be consumed by public opinion and said he expected “this courthouse will always be a refuge from the shifting tides of public interest.”
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver invited Thomas to speak and defended his decision.
“Justice Thomas is a Georgia native and it’s appropriate for him to speak at the event as well,” Copenhaver said, according to the AP. “It offers a real perspective on America. People have differing views, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”