Don Quixote, Meet Clarence Thomas

Or, more accurately, Don Quixote, meet today’s Democratic base. Why Don Quixote? Because a “quixotic” quest is one which is fantastical and romantic, but impractical and likely a lost cause, or has very little chance of success,. And that’s exactly what the current push on the left against the recent revelations about Clarence Thomas’ ethical improprieties are: a quixotic quest.

Why? Because although Thomas is a loathsome creature as a SCOTUS Justice – an incurious, ideologically rigid tool of the far right, and his actions would likely be a firing-level offense in any lesser jurist, there are no rules which govern the conduct of the Supreme Court. Perhaps there should be, and perhaps it will be this incident which convinces of the need for some…but as things stand right now, there simply aren’t any such rules. The Code of Judicial Conduct applies to every other judge in the United States except the nine who sit on the Supreme Court. Those nine members of that highest judicial body are supposed to be self-policing, and are – by design of the framers themselves – not subject to oversight or review by either of the other two branches of government (except as noted below). That’s what it means to be “co-equal”: Supreme Court Justices don’t work for or under the authority of any other branch. Their actions and conduct are non-reviewable by either Congress or the President. That’s what gives them the autonomy to act in the interest of the constitution and rule upon questions before them as they see fit, not as they worry their “bosses” (if they had any) might feel about their rulings.

Indeed, the only method of redress for a theoretical SCOTUS Justice run amuck is the same one which exists for a wayward or criminal President: impeachment. And the bar for that is – also by design – set just as high for Justices as it is for Presidents. There are three hurdles to clear to impeach a Justice and remove him or her from office:

  1. Articles of Impeachment have to be forwarded to the entire House of Representatives by the appropriate committee (usually Rules or Judiciary).
  2. The full House has to vote the accused guilty (this is the official “impeachment” – though it does not carry with it any specific remedy or penalty).
  3. The Senate then has to vote whether to remove the impeached official from office.

This just. isn’t. gonna. happen, folks. And pretending it will is a waste of organizing energy.

The first two of those three steps occur in the majority-rules House of Representatives. Quick, anyone: what direction has the GOP gone in over the past decade or so – say, since Bill Clinton left office? Have they become more reasonable, more bipartisan, more willing to put country before party? Or has it been the exact opposite, becoming more rigid, more disciplined, and more settled upon their-way-or-the-highway tactics? If you answered the latter, you’ve been paying attention. In other words, the likelihood that a House of Representatives with its current large GOP majority would even forward the charges out of committee to the full house is effectively zero, and if the committee were, by some miracle, to do it, the likelihood that the full House would impeach Clarence Thomas on a roll-call vote is even more remote. To be blunt: it’s about as likely as Larry Craig’s insistence that he has never been gay.

Even if both of those extremely unlikely events occurred, the next step would be, if anything, still less likely. Ironically, the one chamber of congress where the Democrats still have a majority (albeit a wavering one, with blue dogs who frequently cross lines and vote with the GOP making up the bulk of what adds up to over fifty theoretical “Democratic” votes) is also the chamber (the Senate) where simple majority does not rule. No, I’m not talking about the filibuster, though you can be forgiven for assuming that, since the GOP has used it so pervasively and to such great effect (in terms of gridlock) since 2006. In the specific case of impeachment trials, however, the constitution mandates a 2/3 majority to remove the impeached official from office. Even counting Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, etc, the Democrats have a total number of votes in the low fifties. Does anyone really think that thirteen or fourteen Senators from a party which has exercised the filibuster lately so often, and with such relish, could be persuaded to vote to impeach perhaps the most rock-solid dependable vote for their far-right agenda on the Supreme Court…knowing that doing so would allow the loathed Kenyan Marxist terrorist President Obama to appoint his replacement?

Don’t make me laugh.

In other words, there is no chance – NONE – that Clarence Thomas will suffer anything more than some mildly unpleasant publicity for all the work currently being done to expose his misdeeds. There’s been a lot of talk and comparison of Thomas’ current situation to the case of the only removed Justice, Abe Fortas, back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, but unfortunately, those parallels simply do not apply…or at least are almost certain not to apply. Here’s why: partisan wrangling has always existed, in this country and in others. But until some time during the Clinton administration, there was an assumed, implied understanding by both parties that country trumped party. In those days, the cliché “politics stops at the water’s edge” wasn’t just a cliché – it was (generally) respected by both parties, regardless of their differences. Similarly, truly despicable, lawbreaking or unethical behavior by elected officials took precedence over “protecting one’s friends.” Sadly, as any progressive who’s been paying attention since the Clinton years can tell you in their sleep, those days are long gone. Now, GOP Senators and Congresspeople make their own meetings with foreign officials and undercut the President’s stated direction for the country, and whenever one of the GOP’s “team” is attacked, they circle the wagons and mount an all-out defense. It’s why David Vitter is still a Senator, why no one has ever prosecuted or even vigorously investigated the malfeasance of the early 2000s which led to the Iraq war, torture, etc, etc…

And it’s the reason why Clarence Thomas, short of revelations of murder in the SCOTUS chambers themselves, will simply not be removed from office by Congress, nor even impeached. It’s simply not going to happen. Back in Abe Fortas’ day, Republicans were still capable of being shamed by revelations of impropriety. Today, their ideological descendents simply obfuscate, equivocate and make excuses for even the most loathsome and clearly unethical behavior. Then they circle the wagons, dig their heels in and prepare for all-out war to save “their guy.” This isn’t even a debatable idea in progressive circles: we all know this is how the GOP of today operates. So the notion that somehow, a group of wise, elder-statesmen of the GOP would, in historical fashion, head over to the SCOTUS chambers, to solemnly tell Thomas that he’d brought enough shame and discredit upon the institution and upon the party and that he had to resign
now, is simply silly. There will be no such “come to Jesus” meeting with Thomas by the wise, responsible old heads of the GOP because there ARE no longer any wise old heads of the GOP. Or, if there are, they’ve learned to keep their mouths shut for fear of drawing a tea-party challenger and being out of power quicker than you can scream “socialist lackey!!”

All of which is why I’m somewhere between amused and disgusted with the current push to “get” Thomas on the left. Have my friends simply not been paying attention to either the rules of how such a thing would have to work, or to the state of the GOP which would have to agree to help Democrats make them work that way? Looking at all the energy on the left around the Thomas issue over the last ten days or so, you’d almost have to conclude thusly.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand completely the idea of standing up for something because it’s the right thing to do, even if you know you have no chance of success. In fact, since 2009, I’ve found myself far more frequently on that side of the intra-lefty argument about (broadly speaking) “pragmatism vs idealism” that has raged around Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats’ actions (and inaction). I’ve far more frequently found myself arguing that Democrats needed to stand FOR something, visibly and energetically, and THEN they would garner public support, and opposed those who seemed to me to be pre-capitulating on core values by suggesting that we “take what we can get” or “keep our powder dry for other fights” or (in the case of the President himself and his administration) that we seek bipartisanship, even at the expense of standing for our own values. So I get it. I understand the dilemma and completely respect the notion of standing up for something because it’s the right thing, even if it’s a lost cause.

If anything, it’s that very recognition that’s making me even more exasperated about the current anti-Thomas-mania. I keep thinking, “really? Now? Over THIS? This is what you want the liberal movement to throw itself upon the fixed bayonets of? THIS is the hill that you want to die valiantly but in vain on? Not on putting a robust public option into health care to actually control costs and give desperate consumers a real choice in health care? Not on the rule of law and prosecuting those who thought they were above it by torturing and wiretapping? Not on prosecuting the clearly criminal banksters who crashed our economy and made off with billions in bonuses at the same time? Not on any one of so many other issues where the public could truly have not only benefitted or been protected, but also been inspired to believe that liberals and Democrats were not just right on the merits, but willing to truly go to the mat and fight to the last man for the principle of the right thing? NONE of those issues inspired that kind of ‘last stand mentality in y’all….but trying to impeach Clarence Thomas – one of only nine Supreme Court Justices – for being a sleazeball-on-the-take (which we pretty much already knew) — THAT’S the hill you want to die on? The quixotic, impossible quest you want to expend the bulk of our energy on right now?”

Haven’t we got real work that not only needs doing, but is actually possible (at least in comparison to the possibility of getting Thomas impeached)? We’ve got a President who looks ready to cave on appointing Elizabeth Warren to head a hugely beneficial and positive government board, the CFPB. Organizing energy could be spent creating pressure to try to force a recess appointment. We’ve got insane Republicans in dozens of states trying to make fertilized eggs the same as living, breathing people and criminalizing women in the process. Those battles can be won by organizing to make people aware of how insane the GOP agenda is. We’ve got collapsing infrastructure, an economy teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession because we didn’t get enough stimulus last go-round and need more, and a national security apparatus that’s if anything even more invasive of domestic citizens’ rights than it was under the Bush administration, all of which are areas where both progress (if we organize and push) AND backsliding (if we don’t) are possible, yet so many of my fellow lefties want to focus a large bulk of our energies on….impeaching Clarence Thomas?

For fuck’s sake, people. THIS is why we lose election after election. Because we cave when it’s truly important, and we start inexplicably demonstrating spine and feistiness when congressmen on our own side start sending blurry junkshots to consenting women over the Internet, or when a (for practical purposes) unimpeachable conservative hack commits an admittedly impeachable offense.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Just fucking stupid. And I can’t believe I have to be the one saying this, after the last two and a half years, but apparently, I do: it’s time to get “pragmatic,” people. Time to “get real.” There are battles out here – electoral, legislative and ideological – which are both equally correct from a moral standpoint and are actually winnable. Stop being such “purists” and get to work.


6 thoughts on “Don Quixote, Meet Clarence Thomas

  1. Many valid points and a good argument, but I don’t agree completely with you. Corruption and lawlessness is rampant among the ‘Ruling Class and the more we ignore it and allow it to be a lesser priority the worse it gets. Nixon didn’t pay a price — not really. Reagan and most of his lieutenants didn’t pay a price. Bush, Cheney, and their completely lawless administration didn’t pay a price. And now the overlords of all politicians from the White House to Congress, the Masters of Wall Street, haven’t paid a price. It just gets worse with each passing day. And Clarence Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to make the Supreme Court a corrupt institution. It all boils down to the rule of law and if we don’t have that, well, we ain’t got nuthin’. I could argue at length that it’s our most pressing problem.

    On the other hand, Justice Thomas can’t and shouldn’t consume the left either. You’re right, there are too many important things that need to be addressed. So what to do? The key is letting those that are experts in constitutional law, etc. and routinely carry that banner, well, carry that banner. They want to do it and it’s what they do all day, every day. One example is Glenn Greenwald. Other larger and more formally organized examples are CREW and the ACLU.

    There are some on Twitter that rant all day every day about how Greenwald is worse than Genghis Kahn, Atilla the Hun, and Adolph Hitler combined. Bullshit. I don’t agree with everything he says or does, but I know where he’s coming from and what his intentions are. More importantly, I know that the most outspoken Twitter General that rants endlessly against Greenwald is in fact acting on behalf of others and is compensated for it. Greenwald is a critic of the administration and of course they’d like to shut him down. If it was absolutely necessary and I thought it would accomplish anything I could prove it. I have undeniable, irrefutable proof. But doing so just ain’t that high on my list and I’m not ready to take the rath that would come with exposing the asshat for what s/he is.

    But I digress, the point is, I believe we can and should multi-task. Just let the majority of the rank and file focus on all the things that you said Lars, and leave Clarence Thomas to those that are indeed more qualified to speak to those issues. The corruption has just got to stop or our nation will fail just as easily on that as a failing economic system.

    1. You’re probably right, at least from the standpoint that we can, and should, multi-task. There are many of us, we don’t all have to focus on one things. And perhaps it’s merely my own particular set of follows on Twitter, or some tunnel-visioned-ness on my part, but the main reason I wrote this is because the past week or so (since the idea was floated that WeinerGate was “payback” for Weiner’s investigation of Thomas), it seems as if multitasking is exactly what we’re NOT doing. At least, not in comparison to the multitude of equally-if-not-more pressing and consequential issues which are confronting us and have been for some time.

      It may well be that I’m just peeved that – as I said above – so many other truly ENORMOUS issues didn’t motivate a certain segment of the liberal commentariat to call for the kind of action they’re now calling for against Thomas. And yes, the rule of law is huge. But so was torture, warrantless wiretapping (both of which, funnily enough, are also “rule of law” issues, in the main), organizing around robust health care reform and REAL financial reform. I’d be stretching things if I said there was nary a peep from the current anti-Thomsas posse on those issues…but the peeping died away quite quickly to unmeasurable levels and the “this is the best we could get” drumbeats (and concurrent, execrable “eleventy-dimensional chess” rationalizations) picked up in inverse proportion, as soon as it became clear that the administration and/or congressional Dems either wouldn’t or didn’t know how to fight effectively for many of those issues.

      It seems as if a large chunk of what’s assumed to be “the left” has been occupying themselves with a combination of defending the President from all slights, real and perceived, and coming up with new mashup-insults to call anyone who reads or posts at FireDogLake. Until now. None of these other issues motivated them to do more than give it a perfunctory and for-the-cameras “college try” – at best. But Clarence Thomas being shown to be what we pretty much already knew he was? Heavens, you can hear the pearls clutching from here to eternity. And although I’ll agree again that we can and should multi-task, I think it’s indisputable that organizing energy, time, focus and money is, at some point, a zero-sum game: what’s spent on one thing can’t be spent on others. Ironically, it’s the most-intransigent of the liberals, such as Dennis Kucinich, whom I often think go too far or operate too unrealistically, who have the most credibility to go balls-to-the-walls on the Thomas matter: they can truly and with a demonstrable record claim that they oppose the sleazification and debasement of our institutions, including the judiciary, in toto. I wouldn’t find such a claim, coming from a Kucinich or a Feingold, either fishy or not credible. But from those who stood back and bashed fellow lefties when they objected to the same things under Obama that we ALL objected to under Bush (like rendition, wiretapping, etc.), or who yawned when the public option was still under discussion (or mocked those who suggested it would be a good idea)? The current, newfound Thomas-mania strikes me as a peacock display of cluelessness or insincerity (depending upon the person).

      1. Lars, as long as the president and Dems in Congress for the most part advocate the GOP’s economic policies (cut, cut, cut, now, now, now) and the necons’ war policy (war everywhere and forever — not literally, but you know what I mean), there ain’t much left for strict Obama adherents to complain about except Clarence Thomas (or similar). And the vast majority of people in my stream are strict Obama adherents. If he said the sky was purple they’d agree, cheer the assertion, and tongue lash anyone that said it’s blue followed by the the most dreaded punishment in the world: blocking. Gawd forbid..

        NO ONE in the Village is focusing on jobs and as noted today by bond guru Bill Gross and countless other economists historically, Congress and the White House are working feverishly to push the economy off the cliff with this deficit BS. It’s 1937 all over — or worse. Your greatest obstacle, in essence, is you’re asking a relatively small group of independent thinkers to challenge Village Conventional Wisdom that has robust support from locksteppers on both sides of the aisle. I hear ya, but it ain’t going to be easy. Sure, people on Twitter will say we need to stimulate the economy, but they won’t dare point those comments to POTUS, they only focus it to Boehner, et al. And it needs to be directed at both because POTUS long ago bought into Boehners “the deficits are going to kill us in our beds TONIGHT” argument.

        Ask yourself: How many supposed liberals on the Twitter machine have you seen buck what POTUS says about anything and actually stick to that conviction? Yeah, they might hold that conviction until POTUS does what the GOP wants and then they whip right around and say what a great decision that was. (See Bush tax cuts). The biggest challenge you/we are facing is getting people to do independent, creative thinking and to not allow Twitter Generals to bullying them into whatever position is being commanded from on high. We ain’t solving any problems until people start thinking for themselves.

        It’s so complex, and I’m right with you, but we’re almost trying to piss up a rope.

  2. If nothing else, pressing and publicizing the misdeeds of Clarence Thomas–and forcing the GOP to yet again display their intransigence–should prove a worthwhile “teaching moment” for the public and even the rank-and-file teahadists. It’s my belief a few of those can realize how they’ve been snookered, and can come to recognize with whom their true self-interest lies.

  3. Perfect. Accurate. Spirited. Productive.

    Let’s move on, and get to work on something do-able. As quixotic as I may be, I’m most certainly not going to beat myself against the bars of the cage protecting the loathesome Clarence Thomas. Other fish to fry, eh?

    Well done, sir. 😉

    1. Thank you, Joan – and congratulations on your new digs. I was only able to view it on my phone previously, but I’m back on the main computer now and will take a look. Glad you’ve decided to get into writing here where the whole world can read it. :o)

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