Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas joined the U.S. Supreme Court on October 23, 1991, replacing Justice Thurgood Marshall. He is the longest-serving current Justice by a wide margin, and he is the only current Justice who took his seat before 2000. Thomas was born in Georgia on June 23, 1948. He became the first person in his family to go to college when he enrolled in Conception Seminary College in Missouri. Thomas transferred to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he majored in English literature. He graduated cum laude from Holy Cross in 1971 and received his law degree from Yale Law School in 1974.

Over the next three years, Thomas served as an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri. He then briefly worked for the Monsanto chemical company before moving to Washington, D.C. and taking a job for the Senate Commerce Committee. In 1981, Thomas became the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, but he would stay there for only a year. He then spent eight years as the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In late 1989, President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was confirmed by the Senate in March 1990. Bush considered nominating Thomas to a Supreme Court vacancy just a few months later when Justice William Brennan retired, but Bush eventually chose David Souter instead. However, Thomas would get his chance just a year later. Bush nominated him on July 8, 1991 to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas went through his confirmation hearings in September 1991. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not send his nomination to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation, instead voting 13-1 to send his nomination without a recommendation. Before the Senate could vote on whether to confirm Thomas, though, allegations of sexual harassment surfaced in the media, This caused the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen the confirmation hearings, which was the first time that this happened to a Supreme Court nominee since 1925. However, the Senate ultimately decided to confirm Thomas by a 52-48 vote on October 15. He took the constitutional and judicial oaths of office about a week later.

During oral arguments, Supreme Court Justices frequently ask questions to the attorneys representing each party. This can help them better understand the nuances at issue. Thomas has stood out from his colleagues for his silence during oral arguments. In fact, he did not ask any questions during oral arguments between February 2006 and February 2016. (Sometimes he has passed notes on questions to Justice Stephen Breyer, who has asked them on his behalf.) Thomas began asking more questions during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Court transitioned to holding arguments remotely.

Thomas has earned a reputation as a deeply conservative Justice. He has generally opposed constitutional protections for abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and affirmative action programs, while endorsing the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Thomas has shown substantial deference to executive authority, as illustrated by his dissents from key decisions involving detainees at Guantanamo Bay during the war on terror. He often takes a narrow view of the statutory rights of employees and the constitutional rights of criminal defendants and prisoners. Although Thomas voiced respect for precedent during his confirmation hearings, his opinions show a greater willingness to revisit settled areas of law than many Justices.

Selected Opinions by Justice Thomas:

Starbucks Corporation v. McKinney (2024)

Topic: Labor & Employment

The traditional four-factor test for a preliminary injunction governs NLRB requests for a preliminary injunction from a federal district court while administrative enforcement proceedings take place.

Vidal v. Elster (2024)

Topic: Trademarks

The Lanham Act prohibition on registering a trademark that consists of or comprises a name identifying a particular living person without their consent does not violate the First Amendment.

Samia v. U.S. (2023)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The Confrontation Clause does not bar the admission of a non-testifying co-defendant's confession when the confession has been modified to avoid directly identifying the non-confessing co-defendant, and the court offers a limiting instruction that jurors may consider the confession only with respect to the confessing co-defendant.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen (2022)

Topic: Gun Rights

When the Second Amendment's plain text covers an individual's conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct. To justify a firearm regulation, the government must demonstrate that the regulation is consistent with the nation's historical tradition of firearm regulation.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski (2021)

Topic: Role of Courts

A request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III standing when a plaintiff's claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.

Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (2020)

Topic: Health Care

The Department of Health and Human Services may promulgate exemptions to the Affordable Care Act to allow for-profit organizations to exempt themselves from the contraceptive coverage requirement on religious or moral grounds.

Kansas v. Glover (2020)

Topic: Search & Seizure

When an officer lacks information negating an inference that a vehicle is driven by its owner, an investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle's license plate and learning that the registered owner's driver's license has been revoked is reasonable.

Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (2019)

Topic: Patents

A commercial sale to a third party who is required to keep the invention confidential may place the invention “on sale” for patent purposes.

Oil States Energy Services, LLC v. Greene's Energy Group, LLC (2018)

Topic: Patents

It is not unconstitutional for the USPTO to engage in inter partes review, in which it is authorized to reconsider and cancel an issued patent claim in limited circumstances.

Ohio v. American Express Co. (2018)

Topic: Antitrust

Evidence of a price increase on one side of a two-sided transaction platform cannot by itself demonstrate an anti-competitive exercise of market power.

Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. (2017)

Topic: Copyrights

A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and it would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work (on its own or fixed in another tangible medium of expression) if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.

Utah v. Strieff (2016)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unconstitutional investigatory stop and the evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest.

Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015)

Topic: Free Speech

Since content-based laws target speech based on its communicative content, they are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. Speech regulation is content-based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.

Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk (2014)

Topic: Labor & Employment

Time spent waiting to undergo and undergoing security screenings is not compensable under the FLSA.

Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int'l (2014)

Topic: Patents

When claims are drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (2013)

Topic: Patents

A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.

PLIVA, Inc. v. Mensing (2011)

Topic: Health Care

Failure-to-warn claims based on generic drugs are preempted by the FDA's interpretation of federal drug regulations.

Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. (2009)

Topic: Labor & Employment

A plaintiff bringing an ADEA disparate treatment claim must prove that age was the but-for cause of the adverse employment action.

14 Penn Plaza, LLC v. Pyett (2009)

Topic: Labor & Employment

A provision in a collective bargaining agreement that clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate ADEA claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law.

Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc. (2008)

Topic: Patents

The patent exhaustion doctrine provides that a patented item's initial authorized sale terminates all patent rights to that item. This doctrine applies to method patents.

U.S. v. Atlantic Research Corp. (2007)

Topic: Climate Change & Environment

Section 107(a) of CERCLA provides potentially responsible parties with a cause of action to recover costs from other potentially responsible parties.

Kansas v. Marsh (2006)

Topic: Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing

A state death penalty statute may direct imposition of the death penalty when the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigators do not outweigh aggravators, including when the two are in equipoise.

eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC (2006)

Topic: Patents

The traditional four-factor test for deciding whether to award permanent injunctive relief applies to patent disputes.

Texaco, Inc. v. Dagher (2006)

Topic: Antitrust

It is not per se illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act for a lawful, economically integrated joint venture to set the prices at which it sells its products.

National Cable & Telecommunications Ass'n v. Brand X Internet Services (2005)

Topic: Government Agencies

A court's prior construction of a statute trumps an agency construction otherwise entitled to Chevron deference only if the prior court decision holds that its construction follows from the unambiguous terms of the statute and thus leaves no room for agency discretion.

Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc. (2004)

Topic: Climate Change & Environment

A private party that has not been sued under CERCLA Sections 106 or 107(a) may not obtain contribution under Section 113(f)(1) from other liable parties.

Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila (2004)

Topic: Health Care; Labor & Employment

ERISA prevents individuals from suing HMOs in state court for pure eligibility decisions. Also, if an individual at some point in time could have brought their claim under ERISA Section 502(a)(1)(B), and no other independent legal duty is implicated by a defendant's actions, the individual's cause of action is completely preempted.

U.S. v. Patane (2004)

Topic: Miranda Rights

A failure to give Miranda warnings to a suspect does not require the suppression of the physical fruits of their unwarned but voluntary statements.

Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen (2004)

Topic: Climate Change & Environment

Since the FMCSA lacks the discretion to prevent the cross-border operations of Mexican motor carriers, neither the National Environmental Policy Act nor the Clean Air Act requires the FMCSA to evaluate the environmental effects of these operations.

Desert Palace. Inc. v. Costa (2003)

Topic: Labor & Employment

Direct evidence of discrimination is not required for a plaintiff to obtain a mixed motive jury instruction under Title VII.

Ashcroft v. ACLU I (2002)

Topic: Free Speech

A law's reliance on community standards to identify what material is harmful to minors did not by itself render the statute substantially overbroad for First Amendment purposes.

Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A. (2002)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

An employment discrimination complaint need not contain specific facts establishing a prima facie case but instead must contain only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.

Gitlitz v. Commissioner (2001)

Topic: Taxes

Excluded discharged debt is an item of income, which passes through to shareholders and increases their bases in an S corporation's stock.

Christensen v. Harris County (2000)

Topic: Government Agencies

Agency interpretations in opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines are entitled to respect from courts, but only to the extent that they are persuasive.

Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc. (1998)

Topic: Copyrights

The Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial on all issues pertinent to an award of statutory damages in a copyright infringement case, including the amount.

National Credit Union Admin. v. First Nat. Bank & Trust Co. (1998)

Topic: Government Agencies

In applying the zone of interests test for standing to sue under the APA, a court does not ask whether Congress specifically intended the statute at issue to benefit the plaintiff. Instead, it discerns the interests arguably to be protected by the statutory provision and inquires whether the plaintiff's interests affected by the agency action in question are among them.

Warner-Jenkinson Co., Inc. v. Hilton Davis Chemical Co. (1997)

Topic: Patents

The doctrine of equivalents must be applied to individual elements of the claim, rather than the invention as a whole. The essential inquiry is whether the accused product or process contains elements that are identical or equivalent to each claimed element of the patented invention.

Lockheed Corp. v. Spink (1996)

Topic: Labor & Employment

When employers or other plan sponsors adopt, modify, or terminate pension plans, they do not act as fiduciaries but are analogous to settlors of a trust.

Wilson v. Arkansas (1995)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The common-law knock and announce principle forms a part of the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry.