Opinion | Columns

Koch got your tongue?

Last week commemorated the anniversary of five years of silence from Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Clearly, the Justice believes he is exempt from any sort of marks for participation, though surprising new evidence may be able to explain his passive behavior in court.

Even in classes where “participation” counts for a whopping 30 or so percent of the grade, I am forced to marvel at the constituent of the student body who chooses to remain silent at the back—or even the front—of the classroom for an entire semester. I have heard the theory that participation grades exist to give professors “wiggle room” to inflate or diminish grades according to personal preference. However, professors have extolled the importance of actively engaging in classes as a vital component of education—in order to truly grasp the material in question, we have to activate our verbal centers.

Last semester, my CC professor started the year with a self-deprecating story about how he was so shy in college that he never spoke in classes. Now, decades and a tenured position later, he regrets missing the opportunity to participate in class. Indeed, in that section, some more timid students who might not otherwise have spoken tenuously raised their hands to add their two cents. And yet, many still did not. The culprits, overwhelmingly, sat at the back of the classroom, an engorged row of boys clad in light blue Columbia Lions apparel with baseball caps pushed down low over their faces. Sometimes I glanced to that corner of the classroom, more fascinated than anything else by their Gandhi-like determination never to emit a single syllable. Granted, it was nine in the morning, but when the most fundamental questions of our lives as human beings are at stake, not to mention a quarter of the class grade, how can you just say nothing?

Justice Thomas can. Every year, the Supreme Court hears roughly 100 cases, which, after the writ of certiorari and the other official business goes through, are debated at length on the floor of the Court in Washington, D.C., which is open to the public. Court reporters for the New York Times have observed Thomas “leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, ... whispering to Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored.” Essentially, he might as well have a baseball cap pushed down over his face.

Though I tremble to admit it, a lot more is directly at stake in the U.S. Supreme Court than in CC. For instance, Thomas provided a key vote in the recent Citizens United decision. Now, as a result, political campaigns legally can conceal the sources of their funding. In the months following the decision, campaign donations from American Crossroads and its affiliate Crossroads GPS (run by Karl Rove) have taken off as if by magic. The billionaire Koch brothers, who were the subjects of the scandal that Jane Mayer of “The New Yorker” broke over the summer, have begun their own powerful funds to support a radically right-wing political agenda—from behind closed doors. Mayer had exposed these reclusive patrons of the New York art scene as the secret sponsors of the Tea Party, and I wrote in Spectator about their plot to manipulate environmental research at important universities at the service of frightening corporate interests.

An entire body of legal scholarship has been devoted to explaining Thomas’ prolonged silence, including Supreme Court expert Jeffrey Toobin’s article “Unforgiven: Why is Clarence Thomas So Angry?” Perhaps Thomas, as Toobin suggested in 2007, is angry with the “liberal establishment” for furnishing him with the benefits of affirmative action—or else, like my college-aged CC professor, shy. My explanation is that he has been paid off. Though the man maintained his silence for five years in one of the highest offices in the land, it turns out that he gave a speech at an event in Palm Springs sponsored by none other than the Koch brothers. He was generously reimbursed “an undisclosed amount for four days of ‘transportation, meals, and accommodations.” Disturbingly, Thomas’ speech, his silence, and possibly his vote seem to be available for purchase by radical right-wing elites. Justices participate, addressing questions to lawyers and defendants, for almost the same reason we participate in classes: to engage and learn more about the material. There is every reason for us to “participate”—and to expect the same from Thomas. After all, his job is to uphold the very standards of justice that we study in CC.

Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English with a French concentration. The Far Side of the Familiar runs alternate Wednesdays.

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Stephen Snowder posted on

As Colbert pointed out last week, Thomas has always ruled in favor of corporate interests, and therefore there would have been no need to "bribe" him for his vote on Citizens United. "It wasn't a bribe, it was a reward," were Colbert's words if I remember correctly.

I'm no fan of Justice Thomas but it's worth pointing out that the role of corporate money in politics has long been a debated issue - this is not a new fight. There are thoughtful people on both sides. Don't forget that four other justices agreed with Thomas on that ruling, including the Court's swing voter, Justice Kennedy. In fact, it was Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion in the ruling, saying "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

There is an intelligent argument to be made that, basically, money is speech. It is not an argument I wholly agree with - and I see the Citizens United ruling as a potential disaster for democracy. But I also think that we should proceed very, very carefully when we decide it's okay to limit any kind of political speech whatsoever. I see the ruling as an invitation to go back to the drawing board and look for other ways to limit corporate influence on our elections. This has been an invitation that Congress has not yet taken up, unfortunately.

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Kevin McColl posted on

It matters not if they would have 'done it anyway' excuse.
It only matters they are rewarded for the action and result.

The fact he was at a meeting claiming to be with one group in the spot where the Koch were holding their meeting and claming it was not the Koch's who were paying for it, and yet the group who paid for those 4 days, nights, food and lodging for exclusive meetings with him did not have any group meeting in that spot.

It not only shows he is being paid for this, but is actively HIDING it.
In effect breaking the law himself of the crime of showing favoritism in a court ruling he should have recused himself because of this relationship.

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Kevin McColl posted on

Also note the group on Thomas's own expense report is 'known' or 'associated' with Koch anyway, never mind the fact Koch brothers themselves have said that Thomas 'was' at their meeting. So not only was it a hiding of the relationship, it was a lieing of the relationship in his own legally filed paperwork.

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Stephen Snowder posted on

Kevin, I'm not making excuses for Thomas - I'm just distinguishing the difference between a "bribe" and a "reward" or a "payoff" as you call it. I don't necessarily think either is acceptable, and certainly lying on his filings is not acceptable.

I guess my main objection is that this is being presented as a "conservatives vs. liberals" argument when that's not what it is. As I noted earlier, Justice Kennedy voted with the majority and wrote the majority opinion. I am a liberal and I think Citizens United was probably a bad decision. On the other hand the ACLU has fought very hard against campaign finance laws and most people would say that is a pretty liberal group as well. I just don't like seeing these very difficult and complicated questions boiled down into "my ideology vs. your ideology," as they so frequently are. Free speech and the role of money in elections in particular is too important an issue to simplify in that way.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm sincerely puzzled. What did Ms Gutterman really mean to say when she spoke of an "engorged row of boys" in the back of a classroom? Was this a typo? Presumably it couldn't have been "engaged" since that would be the opposite of the point she seemed to be making. What did the copy editor think she meant?

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Anonymous posted on

This article is ridiculous. What is the connection between being "paid off" and not participating during oral argument? Justice Scalia has participated in many Koch-sponsored events and shares many of the same political values as Justice Thomas, yet Scalia is one of the most loquacious members of the Court (ever). Just a very strange conclusion to this article.

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Anonymous posted on

I think you attitude toward student-athletes is stereotypical and completely irrelevant to your article. I am personally offended, and think this was very inappropriate. You should be ashamed of yourself.

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