News stories in Augusta here and here report that several local officials and lawyers are upset that Thomas will be the guest speaker May 18 at the opening of a court building named for John Ruffin Jr., a local civil rights lawyer who became the first black judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Ruffin died in 2010.
“It’s not [Thomas’] fault, but his judicial philosophy is the antonym of what Judge Ruffin’s was and what it is in the vast majority of the minority community,” Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins was quoted as saying in The Augusta Chronicle. The paper also quoted a close friend of Ruffin as saying, “I know of no way we could dishonor John Ruffin more than to have Clarence Thomas speak for this occasion.”
Ken Foskett, author of a 2004 biography of Thomas and now opinions editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the controversy "really speaks to the local politics of Augusta," a city that he describes as "very racially charged."
In an interview last week, Judge Watkins said, “Reasonable minds can disagree” over the appropriateness of inviting Thomas in light of the “divergent judicial philosophies” of Thomas and the late judge Ruffin. The first black member of the Augusta bar, Ruffin was “a real icon within the minority legal community here,” said Watkins.
The method for picking Thomas as the speaker at the dedication was as polarizing as the choice itself, Watkins added, because minority lawyers were not consulted. “The way the issue came up was very divisive,” he said. “In this neck of the woods, it echoes the good old boy way of doing things. It came off as disrespectful and condescending.”
Others defended the choice of Thomas, if for no other reason than that he is the circuit justice for the 11th circuit, which includes Georgia. When Thomas first accepted the invitation last fall, City Administrator Fred Russell said, “He seemed like a logical choice. He’s the Supreme Court justice. That’s pretty classy. I didn’t realize that would be a problem.” Former Richmond County State Court Solicitor Harold Jones was quoted as saying, “He is a Supreme Court justice. He’s from Georgia. He pulled himself up with his own bootstraps,” he said. “I think it's a great choice. I think he shows what a justice should be.” Thomas is also scheduled to speak before the Augusta Bar Association May 17.
The controversy recalls past incidents in which Thomas’s Georgia appearances caused a stir. In 2002 and 2008, some faculty members and students at the University of Georgia protested his appearances.
Judge Watkins said he plans to attend the Augusta courthouse dedication despite his misgivings about the process. “I’m former military, and there the person is important, but the rank is more important. You don’t have to love the person to respect the rank.”
Foskett, the Thomas biographer, said it was not surprising that Thomas, nearing his 20th anniversary on the high court, still attracts controversy when he gives speeches. "Among many black folks, his opposition to affirmative action and other racial preference programs was a line in the sand that most of them cannot accept, and they won't forgive him for it."
Eventually, Foskett predicted, that opposition will subside, and it is even possible that "someday, people will look back and say, 'he had it figured out'" and was correct on the issue. "But we're not there yet."
Photo by Diego Radzinschi