McConnell Honors Justice Thomas’s 30th Anniversary with Speech on the Senate and the Judiciary

WASHINGTON D.C.U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered the featured keynote address Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation and the C. Boyden Gray Center at the Antonin Scalia School of Law in honor of Justice Clarence Thomas’s 30 years and counting on the Supreme Court.

Excerpts from Leader McConnell’s remarks on the Senate, the judiciary, and Justice Thomas follow below.

On the confirmation process:

“The linkage between the Senate and the Supreme Court is a fascinating, crucial, and frankly slightly strange part of our constitutional order.

“An institution of our federal government that is sacredly nonpolitical and another institution that is entirely and intentionally political come crashing together.

“During some periods, ‘advice and consent’ was a perfunctory and sleepy process. Other times, Senates adopted what we might call a more assertive posture. And in some of those latter cases, the confirmation process becomes a kind of referendum on the very same principles and values that the Justices are meant to uphold on the bench.

“The presumption of innocence. The due process of law. We all know these subjects are constantly up for discussion in the Court. But what is fascinating and disturbing is the frequency with which those same principles are ending up on trial across the street on our Senate floor.”

“I was a freshman Senator when the far left ate Robert Bork alive in 1987. I’d come to the Senate with a high-minded, perhaps naïve view that I’d expressed in that law journal article: The Senate should stick to evaluating nominees’ competence and integrity, and let Presidents select for legal philosophy as they liked. That’s what I’d thought.

“Well, it didn’t take long for Ted Kennedy and friends to permanently disabuse me of that notion. I stood at my freshman’s desk in the back row and explained that I’d be happy to play by the Democrats’ new rules and make judicial philosophy a salient factor going forward. Let’s just say history has a funny way of making people reap what they sow. In 1987, the far left taught the American people they should care about judicial philosophies. In 2013, Harry Reid broke Senate rules to change Senate rules to set the threshold for confirmation at 51. It’s safe to say neither of those moves has played out like my colleagues intended.”

On Justice Thomas’s personal qualities:

“The same grit that carried Clarence through Pinpoint and Savannah…

“The same stubborn faithfulness that let him ultimately keep faith in both his Church and his country even after they both let him down in ugly ways as a young Black man…

“The same commitment to principle that compelled Clarence to blaze an uncomfortable trail in Washington, disrupting everybody’s expectations…

“All these virtues proved necessary that summer and fall. And all of them were on display. At every step of his journey, Justice Thomas has provided living proof that — as a wise man named Myers Anderson liked to say — ‘Old Man ‘Can’t’ is dead.’ He sure is. And Mr. Anderson’s grandson Clarence helped bury him.

“It’s even more impressive when you remember that this courageous and determined person is also, famously, one of the most affable, genial, and un-self-serious people in all of Washington.

“In fact, after watching Justice Thomas excel these 30 years, I’m tempted to propose a new standard here tonight: The Senate should only confirm the kinds of men and women who, when their dramatic final confirmation vote is taking place, decide to turn off the TV and take a bath instead. We should only confirm people who are happier tailgating out of an RV than rubbing elbows at a cocktail party. Now there’s a standard I could get behind.”

On the role of judges in our constitutional order:

“Radical voices have a problem with Justice Thomas because he limits his job to his job description.

“It’s not about left or right. It’s about our constitutional order itself. Every Justice Thomas opinion evinces a clear understanding that while the role of a judge in our constitutional system is significant and essential, that role is not unbounded.

“The framers did not create these insulated, unaccountable tribunals for judges to act like wannabe legislators and make policy. Trust me, having two legislative chambers is plenty.

“Neither should judges behave like philosopher-kings, who think they’re charged with nudging Americans into line with elite morality.

“And furthermore — and this is especially important in our current climate — judges must not see themselves as political strategists. They are not tasked with reasoning backwards from abstract impressions about what outcomes the nation supposedly needs or the Court’s public standing supposedly requires. We need the rule of law, not the rule of polls.

“The judiciary exists to resolve concrete cases and controversies by examining concrete facts and applying concrete texts.”

On growing threats to judicial independence and the rule of law:

“My friends, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The very concept of an independent and insulated judiciary is at stake.

“A year and a half ago, the Democratic Leader in the Senate grabbed a microphone on the Supreme Court’s steps and threatened two Justices — by name — if they did not rule in ways that aligned with his views on abortion.

“Half a year before that, a whole group of Senate Democrats sent the Justices an amicus brief that read like a letter out of The Godfather. Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues wrote, and this is a direct quote: ‘The Court is not well… [and] perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be “restructured…”’

“This very week, President Biden’s Secretary of State was in Ecuador giving a speech about democracy. I promise I am not making this up. Without a shred of self-awareness, he specifically mentioned ‘undermining the independence of the courts’ and ‘packing courts’ as two signs that democracy is under attack.

“This was less than a week after the Democrats’ pseudo-academic Supreme Court commission tried a laughably transparent move: They temporarily shelved the idea of outright court-packing in order to make the equally shocking concept of eliminating life tenure appear like a moderate option by comparison…

“Again, this is not about conservative policy outcomes versus liberal ones. This runs much deeper. One of our country’s two major political movements has decided they are fed up with trying to win the contest of ideas within the institutions the framers left us, and would rather take aim at the institutions themselves…

“Hostage-takers never settle for half a loaf. There is only one valid response to these efforts to bully impartiality out of America’s courtrooms: To give them no corner. To pay them no heed. We need jurists, young and old, whose only response to these blustering threats is to redouble their commitment to follow the law wherever it may lead, with no fear or favor.”