April 15th, 2010
03:28 PM ET
10 years ago

2 justices discuss next nominee to high court

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer testified before a congressional budget hearing Tuesday.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer testified before a congressional budget hearing Tuesday.

Washington (CNN) - Any new member to the most exclusive club in American government needs a keen ability to get along with the other eight members, two members of the U.S. Supreme Court said with a vacancy looming.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer testified before a congressional budget hearing Tuesday and were asked about the pending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. President Barack Obama is currently deciding whom to nominate as the 89-year-old justice's replacement.

Thomas and Breyer refused to comment on specific candidates or professional criteria they would want in a new justice. But Thomas said certain personal qualities were desirable.

"What we look for, those of us who have been there awhile, is someone we can get along with, who is an honest person, a person who will be
conscientious, a person who will realize it's a small group of us making hard decisions," said Thomas, who joined the Court in 1991. "I don't think we have ever discussed, at least during my tenure, how a particular person would vote. And that's the way we operate."

Breyer, who joined the court three years after Thomas, was more philosophical. "You have to know not just what those [law] books say - that's part of it. And what all those cases say, and what the briefs say - that's part of it. But you have to have what I would call a certain kind of imagination, because you have to be able to think yourself beyond the room, into the lives of the people whom these decisions will actually affect."

Those remarks track to some degree what Obama has said he seeks in a judge. When Stevens announced Friday he was leaving the high court bench after nearly 35 years, the president praised his wisdom and the strong character the Chicago native brought to his work.

"I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities," said Obama. "An independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law, and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people. It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."

The White House has offered no timetable on when he will make decision, but government sources tell CNN they expect an announcement by early May.

The president, in his State of the Union, criticized the courts' conservative majority for a ruling in January that loosened previous congressionally mandated restrictions on so-called "corporate" spending in federal elections. The decision opened up spending for a range of corporations, unions and advocacy groups.

Some liberals have urged the White House to choose an outspoken liberal to the high court, which they hope will elevate the political debate over campaign finance reform and health care, issues the federal courts will likely continue to decide in coming years.

Breyer predicted to House lawmakers the recent, massive health care reform law passed by Congress will someday reach his court.

"Now you, I gather, have passed a law with 2,400 pages," he told panel members, referring to the health care bill. "If you had passed a law with 2,400 pages it probably has a lot of words. And I would predict as a test of the theory that three or four years today no one is every going to ask us again why we have so few cases."

Breyer had been asked why the Supreme Court's caselaod had been relatively light in recent years. The 71-year-old justice explained his colleagues usually only accepts cases where lower courts have disagreed over a particular issue, giving the Supreme Court a chance to offer the final word. A Democratic White House and Congress promoting and passing laws may now have a greater chance of being overturned in coming years by federal courts that have a majority of Republican appointees. Six of the nine current justices on the Supreme Court were named by GOP presidents.

In that vein, Breyer offered a humorous "reality check" on court challenges, citing the example used by the renowned French writer Michel de
Montaigne in 1584.

"This king, he wrote, was so stupid he thought by writing a lot of laws he was going to reduce the number of lawyers because he's explained
everything," said Breyer. "Doesn't the king know every word in a bill is the subject for an argument in court in a decision?"

Filed under: President Obama • Supreme Court
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. AJ

    Since when was Clarence Thomas either honest or hardworking?

    April 15, 2010 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  2. phoenix86

    If Obama can find a judge that has actually performed an abortion, then that will be his nominee.

    April 15, 2010 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  3. Larry

    "Thomas said certain personal qualities were desirable."
    He added, in his head, "I want a hot black chic who won't get offended when I tell her abourt the porn movies I like to watch". (My apolgies to Anita Hill).

    April 15, 2010 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  4. Jack

    Thomas speaks! I didn't know he actually spoke.

    What they really should be looking for in a court appointee is someone who speaks while his butt is on the bench. If we had a court of judges like Thomas nothing would be said. There would be just the sound of air blowing through the robes of the justices.

    April 15, 2010 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  5. Marge

    Too darn bad thomas doesn't have any personal qualities. Just look at helping his wife set up a tea bag group and then posing with them. That man is a disgrace to the whole darn country, much less the supreme court. If we hadn't have a bunch of losers and good old boys who thought catting around was popular in congress at the time they would have found this highly unqualified suspected "so called ladies man" not suitable.

    April 15, 2010 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  6. L for Legend

    Shut up, Clarence.

    April 15, 2010 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  7. AP

    Go figure. Thomas is talking about honesty.

    April 15, 2010 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  8. David/Kissimmee FL

    The court is partisan and Thomas is full of it.

    April 15, 2010 04:29 pm at 4:29 pm |
  9. Marie MD

    "Blah, blah, blah from the supreme court . . . . . we need somebody who will give corporations every benefit so they can lobby in congress against the little guy who doesn't have any money, blah, blah, blah . . . . . ."

    April 15, 2010 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  10. David from Southern Illinois

    Clarence Thomas isn't involved in the decision.

    April 15, 2010 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  11. Tari Torch Sweeney - Shaker Heights, OH

    Please. Don't even go there with Clarence Thomas and his opinion on ANYTHING....since Anita Hill. His opinion is nothing. He should not have even gotten on the Supreme Court.

    April 15, 2010 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  12. JonDie

    In other words, the next justice needs to be card-carrying fascist and radical religious extremist so he or she can fix with Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas.

    April 15, 2010 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |