Over the years, far-right U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has had his conflicts not only with the liberals and centrists on the High Court, but also, with some of its right-wingers — most notably, former Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose libertarian leanings on abortion and gay rights were a sharp contrast to Thomas’ severe social conservatism. Thomas has also had his share of disagreements with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, and the disagreements between Thomas and Roberts were evident when Thomas spoke at a conference in Dallas recently.
President George W. Bush appointed Roberts in 2005. Discussing the atmosphere on the High Court before 2005, Thomas told the Dallas crowd, “We actually trusted each other. We may have been a dysfunctional family, but we were a family — and we loved it.”
Thomas’ comments come at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. A leaked majority draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito makes an argument for overturning Roe; Alito is joined in his 5-4 opinion by Thomas, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Justice Neal Gorsuch — while the four dissenters are Roberts, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer (who is retiring and will be replaced by President Joe Biden’s nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson).
CNN legal analyst Joan Biskupic, in an article published on May 20, explains, “Thomas' blunt remarks suggest new antagonism toward Roberts and added to the uncertainty regarding the ultimate ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, expected by the end of June. Roberts, with his institutionalist approach, is positioned as the one justice who might generate a compromise opinion that stops short of completely overturning Roe v. Wade, at least this year. That would thwart an outcome that Thomas has worked toward for decades.”
Biskupic observes that “Thomas' sudden aim at Roberts' leadership is new. In the Dallas appearance, his message to the chief justice came down to: The Court was better before you arrived.”
“Thomas and Roberts have different negotiating patterns,” Biskupic explains. “Thomas is known for putting his cards on the table and abhorring gamesmanship. The first attribute he ascribed to (Justice Ruth Bader) Ginsburg was revealing: ‘You knew where she was.’ Roberts, in contrast to Thomas, has a reputation inside the Court for being guarded, even secretive.”
It’s so secret where Thomas stands on Roe v. Wade, which he believes was wrongly decided by the Berger Court back in 1973.
“Roberts has a steep climb to craft a compromise that will keep Roe partially intact,” Biskupic notes. “The right-wing bloc allowed Texas' virtual ban on abortions to take effect last year, and during oral arguments in the Mississippi case, it appeared to be holding together to eviscerate Roe.”