By Stuart Stevens
I grew up surrounded by the legal world. My dad and his college roommate, and a few pals started what became a firm with hundreds of lawyers in multiple countries. But I remember being a kid and playing in the office when it was just five lawyers and a few secretaries. They used “Dictabelts” to record letters on spools of colored film. It seemed like magic.
My grandfather on my dad’s side had been Chief Justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and on my mom’s side, my great-grandfather had been Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. My dad’s brother was a Civil Rights lawyer and later taught law.
In those days in the South, it was common to see “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards and banners, but in our house, the Supreme Court of the United States was spoken of with a reverence that I imagine my Catholic friends grew up hearing of the Vatican. When my father argued a few cases in front of the Supreme Court, it was a solemn occasion my parents would use to remind my sister and me how fortunate we were to live in a country of laws. I think my dad lost every Supreme Court case he had, but the outcome did not change the deep respect and appreciation of our legal institutions.
So, when I read about Clarence Thomas's outrageous abuse of the honor of his position, it makes me want to throw up. What an utter disgrace. It demonstrates a complete lack of respect for every American and what it means to be an American. My dad fought three years in the South Pacific, with 28 island landings; his brother was grievously wounded fighting in Europe and never fully recovered. They were just like hundreds of thousands of others who sacrificed to defend democracy and the rule of law. The Greatest Generation didn’t hand down a sacred legacy so that Clarence Thomas could use a Supreme Court seat to network his way into a crowd of the ultra-wealthy who would take him and his insurrectionist-loving wife on outlandish vacations. That’s a role better played by model girlfriends of oligarchs, not a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
Today respect for the Supreme Court is at an all-time low. Almost 60% of the country has an unfavorable view of the Court, and why not? Mitch McConnell has done more to damage the reputation of the court than any single figure in American history. Obsessed with a conservative court being his personal legacy, McConnell, like Clarence Thomas, abused the position he held with no respect for the institution he was entrusted to protect. There is no way to nuance the obvious fact that Mitch McConnell is a liar. He refused to hold hearings when Justice Scalia died eight months before an election, then turned around and confirmed Amy Coney Barrett during an election. Voting had already begun in many states when her confirmation hearings began.
Mitch McConnell knew he was lying but did because no one could stop him. Clarence Thomas knew what he was doing was wrong but did it because no one could stop him.
These are not the actions of honorable men.
McConnell’s mendacity was accompanied by the deceit of the three judges confirmed when he was Majority Leader. Each was aware they were giving the general American public the impression they would not vote to overturn Roe V. Wade. Their careful choice of language was intended to deceive, not inform, chosen with the precision of a well-coached defendant instructed on how to mislead without risking perjury. It was a knowing abuse of trust for the purpose of securing their lifetime seat on the Court. They accomplished their personal ambition at great cost to the institution.
So now we have three judges who mislead the American people whose nominations were shepherded by a Senator who lied following their nominations by a president who is a pathological liar. Collectively they have served the same role in American life as the Tom and Daisy Buchanan characters in The Great Gatsby. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
It will be left to what we call Generation Z to clean up this mess. They are emerging at a time in which leaders of the Republican party have done all within their power to destroy trust in the justice system, faith in the electoral process, and respect for the rule of law. These are the foundations of civil society, and it would be a uniquely American sort of arrogance to assume our exceptionalism will save us from their brutal assaults. If America does not slip into autocracy and go the way of Hungary with their leader who rants against “race mixing,” it will require the conviction and courage of this new generation to match the Greatest. Like so many children of privilege who squander a legacy granted without merit, the Baby Boomer generation has failed to protect a sacred trust. I failed. You failed. We all failed.
We can only hope that our dereliction of duty will be seen as a temporary collapse and not mark the beginning of an inevitable decline to the end of the American Experiment. It will require men and women of greater character than the Clarence Thomases, Mitch McConnells, and Donald Trumps of this sullied moment. Fortunately, I believe they are out there, and their time is coming.