Justices Clarence Thomas, Ketanji Brown Jackson criticize each other in affirmative action case

Jun 29, 2023, 2:15 PM | Updated: 2:16 pm

Clarence Thomas and Ketanji Brown Jackson...

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Thursday on affirmative action pitted Justices Clarence Thomas and Ketanji Brown Jackson against each other. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

(Eric Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Washington (CNN) — The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling Thursday on affirmative action pitted its two Black justices against each other, with the ideologically opposed jurists employing unusually sharp language attacking each other by name.

The majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts said colleges and universities can no longer take race into consideration as a specific basis for granting admission, saying programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection Clause because they failed to offer “measurable” objectives to justify the use of race.

Justice Clarence Thomas and the court’s other four conservatives joined Roberts’ opinion. But Thomas, who in 1991 became the second Black person to ascend to the nation’s highest court, issued a lengthy concurrence that attacked such admissions programs and tore into arguments posited by liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to join the court, who penned her own fiery dissent in the case.

Thomas has previously acknowledged that he made it to Yale Law School because of affirmative action, but he has long criticized such policies. He spoke in personal terms in his concurrence as he put forth his argument against the use of the policies, which he described as “rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

“Even in the segregated South where I grew up, individuals were not the sum of their skin color,” Thomas wrote.

“While I am painfully aware of the social and economic ravages which have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination,” he added, “I hold out enduring hope that this country will live up to its principles so clearly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States: that all men are created equal, are equal citizens, and must be treated equally before the law.”

As he read his concurrence from the bench on Thursday, Jackson, who joined the court last year, stared blankly ahead. Though Justice Sonia Sotomayor read her dissent from the bench, Jackson did not read her own dissent, in which she went after Thomas’ concurrence and accused the majority of having a “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” in how the ruling announced “‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat.”

A footnote near the end of Jackson’s dissent went after the concurrence by Thomas, with the liberal justice accusing her colleague of demonstrating “an obsession with race consciousness that far outstrips my or UNC’s holistic understanding that race can be a factor that affects applicants’ unique life experiences.”

“Justice Thomas ignites too many more straw men to list, or fully extinguish, here,” Jackson wrote. “The takeaway is that those who demand that no one think about race (a classic pink-elephant paradox) refuse to see, much less solve for, the elephant in the room – the race-linked disparities that continue to impede achievement of our great Nation’s full potential.”

In her broader dissent, Jackson said that the argument made by the challengers that affirmative action programs are unfair “blinks both history and reality in ways too numerous to count.”

“But the response is simple: Our country has never been colorblind,” Jackson said.

(While Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case, she did hear the UNC case, and her dissent was focused on the latter.)

Thomas then explicitly attacks Jackson’s opinion.

“As she sees things, we are all inexorably trapped in a fundamentally racist society, with the original sin of slavery and the historical subjugation of black Americans still determining our lives today,” Thomas wrote.

“Worse still, Justice Jackson uses her broad observations about statistical relationships between race and select measures of health, wealth, and well-being to label all blacks as victims,” Thomas wrote at another point in his concurrence. “Her desire to do so is unfathomable to me.”

A ‘fifteen-cent’ law degree

Thomas, one of the court’s most conservative members, has long been known for his distaste for affirmative action policies. He has been open about the fact that he made it to Yale because of affirmative action, but says the stigma of preferential treatment made it difficult for him to find a job after college.

In his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” Thomas says he felt “tricked” by paternalistic Whites at Yale who recruited Black students.

“After graduating from Yale, I met a black alumnus of the University of Michigan Law School who told me that he’d made a point of not mentioning his race on his application. I wished with all my heart that I’d done the same,” he wrote.

“I learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for White graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much anyone denied it,” Thomas wrote. “As a symbol of my disillusionment, I peeled a fifteen-cent price sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale.”

He dissented in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed for the limited use of race in college admissions.

“I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators,” he wrote in his dissent.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

National News

Passengers check in at San Francisco International Airport on May 24, 2024 in San Francisco, Califo...

Rebekah Riess, CNN

TSA sets new record Friday for most travelers screened in a single day

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it set a new record for most travelers screened in a single day on Friday, according to a post from the agency on X, formerly known as Twitter.

7 hours ago

President Joe Biden at the US Military Academy commencement ceremony in West Point, New York, on Ma...

Aileen Graef, Athena Jones and Shania Shelton, CNN

Biden touts expansion of NATO and actions in the Middle East during West Point commencement

President Joe Biden touted the expansion of NATO, his actions in the Middle East and progress in lowering military sexual assaults in a commencement address to the West Point graduating class Saturday.

11 hours ago

FILE - Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is seen at Space Launch Complex 41 at the ...

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

Boeing’s 1st astronaut flight now set for June after a review of small leak on new capsule

Boeing is now aiming for its first astronaut launch at the beginning of June, after spending the past few weeks struggling with more problems on the space capsule.

11 hours ago

$20 bills...

Hannah Schoenbaum Associated Press

Utah man declined $100K offer to travel to Congo on ‘security job’ that was covert coup attempt

The friend of a prominent Congolese opposition leader’s son said he turned down a six-figure offer to travel there from the U.S. as part of the family’s security detail in what turned out to be a failed coup attempt.

13 hours ago

Local police have warned residents to keep their pets inside and not to approach the animal. (Tiffa...

Rebekah Riess and Zoe Sottile, CNN

A pet primate is on the loose in South Carolina

South Carolina authorities are searching not for a fugitive prisoner or a stolen vehicle, but rather for a resident’s wayward primate

14 hours ago

Colorado State Capitol Building, partially obscured by trees, on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colo...

Jesse Bedayn, Associated Press/Report for America

Colorado governor signs bills regulating funeral homes after discovery of 190 rotting bodies

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills into law Friday that overhaul state oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.

15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Ketanji Brown Jackson criticize each other in affirmative action case