President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month stirred some controversy when he criticized the United States Supreme Court for their ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 decision, the court defended a corporation’s right to spend money on political campaigns and advertisements. Departing from State of Union tradition, Obama voiced his disapproval of the court’s ruling, saying it “reversed a century of law.” Justice Samuel Alito, similarly ignoring court members’ customary silence during the speech, shook his head and mouthed “not true” during Obama’s remarks. The exchange was just the latest breach of etiquette during a State of the Union Address that marks the increasing intensity of partisan politics in Washington.
This partisan fervor is exactly what kept Justice Clarence Thomas away from the floor of House of Representatives last month. The 19-year Court veteran’s refusal to be a silent State of the Union whipping boy, along with his staunch defense of the First Amendment during Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has earned him the top spot as my favorite Supreme Court justice. He rose from humble beginnings and fought through oppression to become a stalwart proponent of American freedom as defined by the Constitution. He’s the epitome of the unshakable American underdog, and he should be your favorite too.
Thomas’s absence from this year’s State of the Union sent an important message to Washington. The Supreme Court is intended to be an institution free of the political squabbling that defines the executive and legislative branches of our government. That’s not to say there aren’t healthy ideological differences on the Court. But as an institution, the Court is supposed to be as politically impartial as possible. This is why justices serve life-long terms and why justices traditionally do not react during State of the Union addresses.
This year, however, Obama’s pot-shot indicting the Court for simply protecting the First Amendment broke down the respect that has traditionally existed between the judicial and executive branches. Rather than twiddling his thumbs or reacting like Alito when Obama criticized the Court, Thomas’s lack of attendance clearly communicated a sentiment I wish all the justices shared — the Supreme Court has no place at the State of the Union Address.
In a recent speech to the University of South Florida’s law school, Thomas defended the Court from Obama’s condemnation. Thomas argued that First Amendment protections for the individual also apply to organizations assembled to influence political campaigns. “If ten of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you’d say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association,” Thomas said. “If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you’d say we still have that First Amendment right.”
Campaign finance reform passed through the legislature like the McCain-Feingold Act is in obvious violation of these basic First Amendment rights. Some would argue that campaign contributions from “Big Business” unfairly drown out the influence of the “little guy” in elections. Thomas knows a fear of the influence of special interest advertisements doesn’t justify the hedging of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. It’s an individual’s duty to vote in a way that reflects his or her personal beliefs. Thomas understands that it’s neither the government’s responsibility, nor its right, to protect citizens from political advertisements.
Thomas’s defense of the First Amendment and refusal to be victimized by a president with a seemingly deficient understanding of the Supreme Court’s responsibilities and traditions is just the latest demonstration of the intelligence, resolve and bravery which has made him the ideal justice. Throughout his career, Thomas has led the charge to return the Court to its roots in judicial restraint and defense of the Constitution. Fighting through allegations of sexual harassment, claims that he lacked the prerequisite knowledge to serve on the nation’s highest court and racist accusations aimed at pegging him as an “Uncle Tom,” Thomas has been the most influential voice in stemming the Court’s fifty years of unwarranted activism. He’s been a resolute supporter of individual rights and equality, most notably in his opposition of affirmative action. You should celebrate his role in preserving the values that have made this country great.
Chris Koslowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.