Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Justice Thomas

Stephen Presser writes an interesting article on Justice Thomas. Here is one passage that suggests why Justice Thomas is one of my heroes:
"When Thomas took his seat on the Court, Justice Byron White gave him some advice about how to respond to the views of his new colleagues: “Don’t change your mind unless you’re truly persuaded.”

Thomas paid attention, showing his fierce independent streak in one of his first cases, Hudson v. McMillan (1992). The suit involved a black Louisiana prisoner named Keith Hudson. Guards had beaten him as a supervisor looked on, telling them not “to have too much fun,” leaving the inmate with “a cracked lip, a broken dental plate, loosened teeth, and cuts and bruises,” according to Hudson’s testimony. Hudson brought a civil rights claim, arguing that he had suffered “cruel and unusual punishment,” which the Eighth Amendment prohibits. In conference, eight of the Court’s nine justices agreed.

Thomas dissented, urging that Hudson’s injuries were actually “minor” and that the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual” language, correctly understood as the framers did, ought to be limited, at a minimum, to significant injury. “In my view,” he explained, “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Further, Thomas pointed out, the Eighth Amendment originally referred to the sentence meted out at trial, not to the incarceration conditions that followed. Any decision to abandon these historical understandings should be up to the people, acting through legislation or constitutional amendment, not to the unelected members of the Court."
What do I like about this story? I like that Justice Thomas pointed out that the 8th Amendment originally was about the sentence imposed, and even more importantly, that if this was going to be changed it should be done by "the people" through proper constitutional processes, not by the Court which is not supposed to have the constitutional power to amend the constitution.

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