When the attorneys for Troy Davis filed an emergency appeal for a stay of execution at the Supreme Court at the 11th hour the entire world watched with baited breath for hours until we learned the fate of Mr. Davis in a case that has dominated the headlines.
Just after 10:20pm, the announcement came. The Supreme Court had denied a stay which could have saved Mr. Davis’ life and the official Court order was just one brief sentence: “The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied.”
The reactions were swift and passionate. Since Justice Clarence Thomas’ name appeared in the order some were mislead into believing that Thomas himself had denied the appeal for the stay of execution.
In fact, Justice Thomas who is one of the nine justices on the Court and its only African American member, is assigned with the 11th circuit which includes the state of Georgia. When an application is filed with the Court it is then referred to the other members of the Court for consideration. In order for a stay to be issued, five of the Court’s nine justices must vote to approve. Justice Thomas alone did not and cannot deny an appeal for a stay of execution.
Even before Troy Davis’ appeal reached the Supremes those who cover the Courts’ rulings predicted it would probably be denied or would be denied in a split 5-4 vote. The solid conservative (no stay) votes on the Court would be Justice Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Samuel Alito. Previously, the liberal wing of the Court which includes Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan, have voted for stays of execution and even issued dissenting opinions. As is usually the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy would be the swing or deciding vote 5th vote one way or the other.
But in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, there would be no dissenting opinion. No explanation about why the Supreme Court, in a unanimous vote, refused to spare Davis’ life with so much doubt surrounding his guilt. This lack of an explanation, opened the door for Justice Thomas who is already disliked by many African-Americans, to be targeted with the blame for the execution. This criticism is unfair and off the mark.
What is true is that Justice Thomas as one of the most conservative justices on the Court, if not in the history of the Court, has a history of opinions and strict constitutional interpretation that is antithetical to the plight of many in the African American community. In the past Justice Thomas has used his race to elicit sympathy and support (i.e. Calling his Senate confirmation hearings “a high tech lynching” while rejecting liberal principles which have benefited generations of disenfranchised groups including African Americans.
So while in the case of Troy Davis, Justice Thomas is not to blame for the outcome, his history and the intense scrutiny surrounding his views on race and justice makes him an easy target.