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How Black Men Have Influenced the Past, Present, and Future of the Supreme Court

Photo credit: Associated Press/Jacqueline Martian

With the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, the United States Supreme Court will soon have an empty seat. This change is an extremely important moment in Joe Biden’s presidency, considering how impactful and long-lasting the position of Supreme Court Justice is. He may only have this one opportunity to affect the future of the United States in such a way, so it came as a surprise to many when it was announced that he would be nominating a Black woman to the seat. The President received immediate backlash for prioritizing race and gender over experience for such a significant decision. But despite the criticism, Biden seems certain that diversity is the number one thing that the SCOTUS needs. Provided that he follows through with this promise, this would make his nominee the first Black woman to ever serve in the nation’s highest court, but not the first African American.

The road that led us to potentially having a Black woman in the Supreme Court was partially paved by the first two Black men to serve as Justices. Thurgood Marshall, and now Clarence Thomas, have been the sole Black voices on the SCOTUS for decades. However, despite them being the same race and experiencing the same struggles, these two men are complete polar opposites when it comes to their judgment. Thomas being a staunch conservative and Marshall being an outspoken liberal, the two had very different opinions on what is best for Black people and the country as a whole. And if Biden does select a Black woman, she’ll have to decide whose footsteps she’ll follow in.

Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice, used his time in the Court to push for equality for all Americans. The NAACP leader often voted to add to and change the Constitution to help fight discrimination within America. In cases like Bowers v. Hardwick and Furman v. Georgia, Justice Marshall decided in favor of protecting the people over protecting the Constitution. He used his judicial powers to try and help the Constitution evolve along with the American people. Freedom and rights were much more important to him than old laws, and he made sure to protect the freedom and rights of the American people at all costs.

During an anniversary celebration for the Constitution, the Justice had this to say about the document, “Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.”

Marshall’s successor, Clearance Thomas, differs from the Civil rights leader in many ways. For starters, Justice Thomas believes that Americans focus “too much on race” and would rather ignore any racial context during seemingly non-racial issues. Despite fighting for civil rights back in his youth, he often decides against modifying the Constitution now that he has the power to influence national law. The judge views his position in the Supreme Court as nothing more than a translator of the Constitution. Throughout his years as a judge, he’s consistently decided in favor of preserving the Constitution, even at the expense of the freedoms of American citizens. Even during Lawrence v. Texas, a case that challenged the Texas laws against sodomy that Justice Thomas himself considered “uncommonly silly,” he still decided in favor of the state.

“If I were a member of the Texas Legislature, I would vote to repeal it. Punishing someone for expressing his sexual preference through noncommercial consensual conduct with another adult does not appear to be a worthy way to expend valuable law enforcement resources.

Notwithstanding this, I recognize that as a member of this Court, I am not empowered to help petitioners and others similarly situated. My duty, rather, is to decide cases ‘agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States.’… And, just like Justice Stewart, I can find neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a general right of privacy.”

Both Justice Marshall and Justice Thomas were Black men who experienced extreme racism growing up and fought for justice and equality in their youth. They both challenged oppressive ideologies as they rose through the ranks of national law. But when they had reached the highest Court in the land and obtained the power to directly influence the fabric of our nation, only one of them continued the fight.

The next Black Justice will have a monumental role in the coming years. With Clarence Thomas growing older, it’s likely that she will soon become the sole Black voice on the Supreme Court. And when she does, she’ll have to decide who she wants to be like. Marshall or Thomas? A champion of the people or a champion of the Constitution?


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