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.