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Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas.

Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas

Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher


422 pp., $26.95


When I was asked to review Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, my first thought was, "Who did I upset at AAJ headquarters to deserve this?" The mere mention that I was reviewing a book about the conservative and controversial Supreme Court justice brought sneers and derisive comments from my liberal colleagues and bitter recollections of Thomas's confirmation hearings from my conservative colleagues. I thought the book might have a political agenda, because Thomas is such a polarizing figure, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn't.

That Thomas is a traitor to his race is often his detractors' rallying cry. Authors Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher--an associate editor and a reporter, respectively, for the Washington Post, both African-Americans--deal with this premise at considerable length. They do a fantastic job of pointing out not just the merits and flaws of this claim but also how Thomas deals with it. We learn that Thomas takes the attacks very personally and doesn't understand them. We also learn this is a key reason why he doesn't speak publicly as often as some of the other Supreme Court justices do.

The authors personalize Clarence Thomas in a way I haven't seen before, which must have been exceedingly difficult, because the justice declined to be interviewed for the book. Merida and Fletcher spent a great deal of effort interviewing former clerks and coworkers and looking at Thomas's past public statements.

The book presents an interesting but neutral biography, including Thomas's humble origins in Pin Point, Georgia, his time at a Catholic prep school (as the only African-American there), and his college days at Holy Cross and Yale Law School.

However, the authors give surprisingly little coverage to Thomas's tenure at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he served as chair from 1982 to 1990. They devote even less time to his judgeship at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (from 1990 to 1991).

Because I am a small-town lawyer, I found it fascinating that Thomas loves to travel the country in a 1992 motor coach with his wife, Ginny. Fletcher and Merida paint an engaging picture of the justice parking his motor coach in a small RV campground, setting up the awning, sitting outside, drinking lemonade, and talking to anyone who approaches. When asked what he does for a living, we're told Thomas responds, "I work for the court system." Say what you will about his politics, but it is hard not to admire a man who holds one of the most prestigious judicial positions in the country and doesn't flaunt it.

The authors provide an extensive point-counterpoint regarding the justice's politics. About midway through the book, they seem to focus a bit too much on the question of race. But just as the reader is beginning to see the authors' views on the subject and regard the book as an indictment of Thomas, Merida and Fletcher quickly steer back toward neutrality and focus on his achievements.

Supreme Discomfort is a well-written, nearly neutral biography of Thomas that gives the reader a good sense of the man and his professional and personal struggles. The book is well worth reading.

JASON KOHLMEYER practices law with Manahan, Bluth & Kohlmeyer in Mankato, Minnesota.
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Author:Kohlmeyer, Jason
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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