Neither Clarence Thomas nor Sonia Sotomayor lacks the brains to sit on America's highest court.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 30 2009 7:15 AM

Hands Off Thomas

Neither Clarence Thomas nor Sonia Sotomayor lacks the brains to sit on America's highest court.

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At the Huffington Post, Daniel Cubias smartly explains how the GOP's attacks on Sotomayor will backfire. But he undercuts his argument when he writes of Thomas, "[T]wo decades later, we're still waiting for the guy to ask a question, author a memorable opinion, or be anything other than Antonin Scalia's sidekick." Claims that Thomas is too stupid to ask questions and in constant peril of embarrassing himself at the court are just not that different than claims that Sotomayor is mediocre. Nobody who has followed Thomas' 18-year career at the Supreme Court believes him to be a dunce or a Scalia clone. Whether you accept Jan Crawford Greenburg's claim that Thomas' constitutional theories are so forceful that they have shaped Scalia's or you believe the more common view that Thomas has a deeply reasoned and consistent judicial philosophy that differs dramatically from those of the court's other conservatives, accusations that he's been a dim bulb are just false. They also reveal that the name-calling that originates now, during the confirmation process, engenders a mythology that can never be erased.

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Calling someone a moron because you don't like their views is the easy way out, and both sides should avoid it. As Philip Klein observes, "I don't think questioning Sonia Sotomayor's intelligence is a productive way for conservatives to oppose her nomination, because it's a rather subjective and arbitrary standard that can easily be refuted by her defenders. ... Even with affirmative action, she could not have achieved what she has in her life if she weren't a smart person."

It was once fashionable to deride Sandra Day O'Connor's intelligence—until folks figured out she was the most powerful woman in the country. Get Americans talking about what it takes to be "smart enough" for the Supreme Court and you quickly realize that the most effective justices haven't necessarily been the most brilliant and that the brilliant have sometimes been raging idiots. Sherrilyn Ifill writes that despite professor Alan Dershowitz's call for Obama to pick a justice from among the "greatest legal minds in the country," many of the 108 white men who have served on the court would probably have failed that test:

[T]he history of our Supreme Court is not an unbroken account of brilliant white men making brilliant decisions. Instead, Supreme Court nominees have often become justices over time and in response to the exigencies of court life and the cases that come before them, sometimes finding deep wells of intellectual and moral force in their decision making. In other instances, otherwise brilliant justices were unable to translate their intellect into the kind of visionary and humane decision making that marks a truly great Supreme Court justice.

Sonia Sotomayor is plenty smart enough to serve on the high court. As Tom Goldstein concludes at SCOTUSblog: "The objective evidence is that Sotomayor is in fact extremely intelligent. Graduating at the top of the class at Princeton is a signal accomplishment. Her opinions are thorough, well-reasoned, and clearly written. Nothing suggests she isn't the match of the other Justices." And nobody should say that Clarence Thomas is less so. Conservatives who believe that Thomas has done credit to the bench shouldn't argue that Sotomayor cannot do the same. And by the same token, liberals who believe Sotomayor is amply qualified to be there should concede that Thomas earned it, too.

Update, June 1: The dek of this article was changed to better reflect the piece's content.