Have you noticed that Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have received significantly more media attention in the last few months? As Kenneth Vogel at Politico explains, that’s not an accident. Liberal activist groups have begun organizing rhetorical attacks on the Supreme Court’s conservative jurists in an attempt to undermine their reputations and call into question their rulings:
Still reeling from a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to an explosion of political ads from corporate interests, and fearful the court could overturn President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, liberal groups have launched an aggressive – and at times personal – attack on the court’s most conservative justices.
The sharp questioning of the impartiality and ethics of Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and to a lesser extent Samuel Alito represents the most concerted attack on a bloc of justices since the early 1970s, when conservatives waged a long campaign against the liberal justices of the Warren Court, most notably Justices William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas.
Thomas and Scalia have been accused of undermining public confidence in the court by engaging in partisan politics and making decisions that could benefit the political and financial interests of their family and associates. And both justices have faced calls for the Justice Department to investigate alleged conflicts of interest and possibly to invalidate their votes in the 2010 decision on political spending, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. One low-profile liberal watchdog group last week even asked the Missouri Supreme Court to disbar Thomas. Alito has been criticized for speaking at fundraising events for conservative groups opposed to Obama’s agenda. Only Chief Justice John Roberts, the fourth staunch conservative on the court, has been relatively immune from the same kind of criticism.
Conservatives will scoff that this is a new effort at all. Progressives demagogued Robert Bork in 1987 and prevented his confirmation to the Supreme Court despite Bork’s undisputed brilliance as a legal thinker, entirely based on his politics. That ushered in a quarter-century of dodgeball in confirmation hearings, where prospective appointments to the Court (and to a large extent for the appellate circuit as well) avoided any talk of legal or judicial philosophy. Those attacks continued through to Miguel Estrada’s shameful shutout from a confirmation hearing, as well as personal and vicious attacks on both Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas during their own confirmation hearings.
For that matter, one doesn’t even need that much of a sense of history. In the 2010 State of the Union address, Barack Obama openly blasted the Court for its Citizens United decision, ignorantly asserting that the Court had reversed “a century” of precedent. His embarrassingly misinformed attack caused Alito to silently mouth the words “Not true” in response, which created a hysteria on the Left about Alito’s supposed lack of decorum in the SOTU session.
Of course, that doesn’t make criticism incorrect or even improper. We should ask about conflicts of interest and unbridled activism, especially when it comes to those who have lifetime appointments and little oversight. Odd, though, that when conservatives have made that case over the decades about the activism of left-leaning courts, the same people that have apparently begun organizing character attacks on Thomas, Alito, and Scalia considered such talk anathema and an assault on the independence of the judiciary.
The bottom line is this: if the Left has to attack Ginny Thomas for having her own career, it’s a nuke-the-fridge moment anyway. Thomas and his colleagues have seen much worse than this.