In the course of the last three months, Justice Clarence Thomas has been the subject of intense journalistic scrutiny; it is not my purpose here merely to add to the stack.
Rather, it was a thought right at the beginning of his speech - delivered at the annual banquet of the American Enterprise Institute on February 13 - that impressed me as exceptionally relevant to our times. The main theme of the address was the need for courage, and here is how the speaker explained why courage made all the difference.
"In important cases," Justice Thomas said in reference to the ones that come before the U. S. Supreme Court, "it is my humble opinion that finding the right answer is often the least difficult problem."
Given the volumes of interpretations and analyses attendant to every decision, the appearance might be that of a simplistic approach by a somewhat naive man.
Nothing of the sort is the case.
With due deference to the extensive roster of brilliant minds who have contributed experience, knowledge and wisdom to American jurisprudence, the Constitution of the United States does not require as much elucidation as we have been, of late, prompted to assume. Together with the other documents of the American Founding, and accepted as the "supreme law of the land," finding the right answer is less confounding than many would have us believe.
The words of Justice Antonin Scalia, reported here on March 31, 1998, still echo in my ears. "Justice Thomas and I are originalists, what you might call textualists," he said. In every-day English, that means reading the Constitution for guidance. "How else can one read it," I hear you ask.
Why, if you have a pet idea as to how everybody else ought to think, speak and behave, you might pour over the Constitution and its "interpretations" until you find something you can successfully twist into a justification of your pet idea.
That, like it or not, is how an increasing number of courts, judges and justices have defied what the Preamble lists as early as second among the reasons for ordaining this Constitution: to establish Justice.
For those who seek it, there is such a thing as the standard American position on most basic issues that have exercised this nation ever since the 1960s infused an entire generation of Americans with continental Europe's permanent state of intellectual agitation. The fact that different courts at different times handed down contrary decisions has much more to do with the command of reality as perceived, or the absence of courage, than with genuine doubts about the "right answer."
And since Bush vs. Gore seems still to sit in the throat of some to the point where Maureen Dowd, a previously respectable columnist, accused the justices who joined with the majority opinion of "stealing the election," we might do well to ask whether a standard American position, too, was clearly discernible in that particular case.
The answer is yes.
"Are you suggesting," you will ask me, "that four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were oblivious to the standard American position?"
Not at all.
In fact, and may it please the court, I will stipulate that all nine justices can recite the Preamble from memory, and were fully cognizant of its application to the matter at hand. "In order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," the mushrooming turmoil in the land had to be ended. Quickly, cleanly, permanently.
Hard as it may be for some, it is time to face the fact that the outcome of the presidential election was not the issue.
Preserving one of America's two miraculous achievements: the peaceful transition of power - that was the issue. (The other is freedom of movement, both physically and metaphorically.) The miracle of peaceful transition enabled America to proceed with proper elections even in the midst of a most vicious and bloody civil war. The miracle of peaceful transition enabled America to craft a smooth way out of the contentious resignation of a president. The justices of the majority realized the miracle was at risk. They found and delivered the standard American answer.
And what of the minority? What moved them to choose positions contrary to the American standard?
No one can look into another person's soul. For one, it would have been a matter of personal agenda. For another, it might have been a mind game about what will be safe and reasonably popular. Or it could simply have been a preference for standing aloof.
Have we forgotten the story of Peter standing aloof, one of the most gripping images in the Bible?
When the chips are down, the world depends on America for its survival.
America depends on the Constitution for its survival.
Nine mortals bear ultimate responsibility for the Constitution's survival.
Viewed this way, finding the right answer may indeed be the least difficult problem. Finding a majority that will invariably deliver the right answer for America is quite another matter.
Will we always be so fortunate?
Do we appreciate how fortunate we have been all this time?