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"Gruff...Rambling" Conservative Justice Thomas vs. "Energetic...Precise" Ginsburg

Unbalanced views of public appearances by two Supreme Court justices, one conservative, the other liberal.

Correction: This story originally mistakenly identified Adam Liptak as his colleague Neil Lewis on two occasions. Liptak is the author of both of the profiles criticized here.


Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak is certainly more fair-minded than his liberally slanted colleague Neil Lewis, but there was some imbalance in the way he portrayed recent public statements by two Supreme Court justices, the conservative Clarence Thomas and the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Liptak's "Sidebar" piece Tuesday on Justice Clarence Thomas was headlined"Reticent Justice Opens Up to a Group of Students." The teaser for the article that appeared on the Times' online political page was overly reductionist in a way that could lead people to believe Thomas was some kind of authoritarian:


In an informal setting, Justice Clarence Thomas admitted to an uneasy relationship with the whole idea of rights.


The article itself wasn't bad, but did play into the liberal perception of Thomas as a silent and moody figure, and examined one of Thomas's exchanges with a student in a suspicious light:


Justice Clarence Thomas has not asked a question from the Supreme Court bench since Feb. 22, 2006. He speaks only to announce his majority opinions, reading summaries in a gruff monotone. Glimpses of Justice Thomas in less formal settings are rare.


But he turned up in a Washington ballroom the other night to respond to questions from the winners of a high school essay contest. His answers and the remarks that preceded them provided a revealing look at his worldview these days.


Justice Thomas talked about his own school days, reminiscing fondly about seeing "a flag and a crucifix in each classroom." He talked about his burdens and his dark moods and about seeking inspiration in speeches and movies. And though the dinner was sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, he admitted to an uneasy relationship with the whole idea of rights.


....


The questions from students were read to Justice Thomas, and the first one seemed to throw him off. "Since the Civil War, what has changed the way Americans view the Constitution the most and why?" an unidentified student asked.


Justice Thomas gave a rambling response, touching on the Fourteenth Amendment, the rights of freed slaves, the application of parts of the Bill of Rights to the states and Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that endorsed the doctrine of "separate but equal."


"I'm sure there are other things that have happened," he said, wrapping up his answer. "So I would have to say just off the top of my head the Fourteenth Amendment. And I bet you someone's going to hear that and say, well, no, it's the dormant commerce clause or something."


That was a curious aside. Few Americans could name the dormant commerce clause, and it has no obvious connection to how popular views of the Constitution changed after the Civil War.


Compare that implied critique to Liptak's sunny take on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's talk at Ohio State University about transnational law in Sunday's edition - "Ginsburg Shares Views on Influence of Foreign Law on her Court, and Vice Versa."


In wide-ranging remarks here, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended the use of foreign law by American judges, suggested that torture should not be used even when it might yield important information and reflected on her role as the Supreme Court's only female justice. The occasion was a symposium at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University honoring her 15 years on the court.


"I frankly don't understand all the brouhaha lately from Congress and even from some of my colleagues about referring to foreign law," Justice Ginsburg said in her comments on Friday.


The court's more conservative members - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - oppose the citation of foreign law in constitutional cases.


"If we're relying on a decision from a German judge about what our Constitution means, no president accountable to the people appointed that judge and no Senate accountable to the people confirmed that judge," Chief Justice Roberts said at his confirmation hearing. "And yet he's playing a role in shaping the law that binds the people in this country."


Liptak described Ginsburg's demeanor in flattering terms:


Justice Ginsburg turned 76 last month and underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in February. Here on Friday, she was energetic, enthusiastic and characteristically precise in her answers to questions from two law professors in a 90-minute conversation. She spoke mostly about her career as a litigator specializing in women's rights and her years on the court.


While describingfour of her colleagues, includingClarence Thomas,as "more conservative," Liptak didn't call Ginsburg a liberal, and glossed over her past career as an ACLU lawyer. Unlike his treatment of Thomas, reporter Liptak evidently found nothing "curious" about Ginsburg's politically correct brand of hyper-feminism:


Justice Ginsburg also discussed her career as an advocate, one that included six Supreme Court arguments and a role in shaping the language of the law. She helped introduce the term "gender discrimination" as a synonym for "sex discrimination," she said, explaining that her secretary had proposed the idea while typing a brief to be submitted to male judges.