The conservative justice’s obsession with the past was on full display during the recent term.
.. It’s going on 50 years since Warren E. Burger, President Richard Nixon’s chosen chief justice and the first of his four Supreme Court appointees, took his seat in June 1969, initiating the turn to the right that continues to this day.
.. He has long insisted that the only legitimate way to interpret a constitutional provision is to give it the “public meaning” it supposedly had at the time it was written. So in 2011, for example, he dissented from a majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia that struck down, on First Amendment grounds, a California law that made it a crime to sell a “violent” video game to a minor without parental permission. “The founding generation,” Justice Thomas wrote in dissent, “would not have considered it an abridgment of ‘the freedom of speech’ to support parental authority by restricting speech that bypasses minor’s parents.”
.. In another case, Justice Thomas reiterated his vigorous and longstanding objection to the “negative” Commerce Clause. This is a doctrine that dates at least to the mid-19th century, prohibiting states from discriminating against out-of-state enterprises in favor of their own residents. It is based on the court’s “negative” interpretation of the Commerce Clause, which empowers the national government to regulate interstate commerce and so, by extrapolation, deprives the states of that power. The court has applied it dozens of times over many years as a bulwark against a feared “Balkanization” of the country. But it is not, as Justice Thomas has frequently pointed out, actually in the Constitution’s text... Justice Thomas took aim in another solo concurring opinion at the court’s approach to what is known as severability, which dates to the 1850s. Under this doctrine, when the court finds that a portion of a statute is unconstitutional, it goes on to decide whether that portion is severable from the remainder of the law or whether the entire statute has to fall. The question is one of legislative intent: Would Congress have enacted the law without the offending provision? This was an important question in the first Affordable Care Act case and in the past term’s decision that permitted states to authorize sports gambling... In a second Fourth Amendment case, Justice Thomas dissented from a majority opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. that the government needs a warrant in order to search the cellphone location records that wireless carriers automatically collect and store as their phone-carrying customers go about their daily business. In deciding that the government’s acquisition of these records was a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the majority applied the 50-year-old “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, which does not depend on the government’s physical entry onto a suspect’s property.
.. Taken as a whole, as the work of a single justice during a single Supreme Court term, they paint an extraordinary picture of a judge at war not only with modernity but with the entire project of constitutional law.
.. Young people graduating from law school today have never lived in a world in which Clarence Thomas was not on the Supreme Court. The very fact of his position and his persistence makes opinions that would have been hooted out of the room a few decades ago look respectable in many eyes. In 1997, in Printz v. United States, he was the first modern justice to assert that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a gun, and to invite anyone interested to bring the right case to a Supreme Court newly open for Second Amendment business. It took a mere 11 years, and we were handed District of Columbia v. Heller.
.. “Clarence Thomas Is the Most Important Legal Thinker in America.” I did a double take. How could the estimable Mr. Millhiser sign his name to such an exaggerated claim? But his argument was not that Justice Thomas, who recently turned 70, is winning victories today, but that he is paving the way for victories down the road — and perhaps not all that far down the road. Observing that 20 percent of Trump-appointed appeals court judges are Justice Thomas’s former law clerks, Mr. Millhiser wrote, “Thomas lost the war for the present, but he is the future of legal conservatism.”