Op-ed: I started the petition to fire Clarence Thomas. Here’s why he must go

Jon Kay is a rising junior majoring in international affairs and philosophy. After U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, Kay started a petition calling on GW to remove him from GW Law where he serves as a professional lecturer. Officials rejected the petition, which accumulated more than 6,000 signatures at the time, out of concern for maintaining academic freedom on campus. The petition has since gained 10,000 signatures in total.

After the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, I started a petition calling on officials to remove Justice Clarence Thomas from his position at GW. Thomas is a professional lecturer at GW’s law school, but his willingness to strip me and my classmates of our rights, his ties to political extremism and his flawed ethics give cause for his firing from the University. Instead of representing a commitment to academic freedom, continuing to employ Thomas demonstrates officials’ disregard for the students they preside over. Despite officials’ rejection of the demands for him to be fired, more than 10,000 supporters still agree that Thomas must go to maintain both GW’s prestige and its commitment to the health and well-being of its students.

In his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Thomas welcomed opportunities to overturn decisions that granted Americans basic human rights that are the hallmarks of a functioning democracy, like access to contraception and the freedom to love who and how they want. Thomas didn’t just help overturn Roe – he has made it clear that his work will continue until he demolishes the rights of queer people and people with wombs, including those who attend GW. In 1993, Thomas even reportedly told his law clerks that he hoped to make the lives of liberals “miserable.” Whether you agree or disagree with Thomas’s judicial philosophy, using his position to attack his political opponents is no model for aspiring lawyers to follow.

Beyond his vendetta and disastrous rulings, Thomas’ troublesome conduct on the bench extends to his association with the plotters of Jan. 6. After the 2020 presidential election, Thomas’ wife, Ginni, communicated with lawyer John Eastman – an attorney for former President Donald Trump who spoke at the rally preceding the attack on the Capitol, which she also attended – White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Arizona lawmakers about overturning the election. Yet Thomas has not recused himself from any of the cases related to the insurrection, and he was the sole dissenting vote against releasing Trump’s presidential records to the members of Congress investigating Jan. 6. Thomas’ failure to uphold even the most basic of voluntary ethics rules is embarrassing. His utter silence about the potential role he and his wife played in the violence on Jan. 6 – just minutes from the Foggy Bottom Campus – suggests he views the law as a means to facilitate his ideological agenda and protect himself and those close to him from the consequences of their actions.

Officials know students, faculty and alumni are outraged with Thomas’ continued presence at the University. Provost Chris Bracey and GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew emphasized in an announcement last week that Thomas’ opinions “do not represent” GW’s values as an institution. Yes, GW doesn’t explicitly endorse the wide range of views among its faculty. But gesturing toward academic freedom, as Bracey and Matthew did to defend their inaction, wrongly assumes that Thomas is capable of fairly and effectively educating his students. As long as his disdain for the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans and his self-serving judicial philosophy can find their way into the classroom, he does not belong on our campus, and the University’s silence isn’t neutral.

I don’t agree with Clarence Thomas on much of anything – it’s no secret that he’s the most consistently conservative member of the Supreme Court. But if this were a disagreement between two private citizens over differences in opinion, no matter how reprehensible those opinions are, that’s where this argument would stop. Yet Thomas doesn’t have opinions like I or my peers do – his words carry the force of law on the bench, and they’re inseparable from how LGBTQ+ and other students experience his class and his presence on campus.

Continuing to employ Thomas tells students that they can and should debate their identity with the same person that has spent his entire judicial career trying to criminalize their existence. My existence is not up for debate. GW does and should allow its students and faculty to express a wide array of beliefs without fear of punishment, but Thomas’ beliefs are beyond the pale. How do you look someone in the eye and debate them on whether you deserve the right to exist when they just threatened to take that right away from you? How do you take their class and pretend that your professor didn’t just make your life infinitely more dangerous at home? Worse still, GW’s implicit approval of Thomas’ behavior under the umbrella of “academic freedom” will embolden homophobic and misogynistic hate groups to harass students affected by his rulings. Come fall, the environment officials have created will make life more unsafe for and facilitate discrimination against its most vulnerable students.

It takes courage to fire a professor who also happens to be a sitting Supreme Court justice, and under normal circumstances, it would be stupid to do so. But these aren’t normal circumstances, and Clarence Thomas isn’t a normal Supreme Court justice. The University can find other high-profile, experienced and even conservative jurists who respect our democracy and respect their students.

I started this petition because I believe the University can institute meaningful change. President Mark Wrighton said GW’s role is to support the “health and safety” of its community. Thomas’ continued employment is an impediment to that health and safety. He has made it his legal mission to cause immense and unprecedented harm to the country and his students. Will GW watch as the court, with Thomas leading the way, strips the rights of their students, staff, faculty and alumni? Or will they muster up the courage to fire Thomas and demonstrate that they value the people they house, educate and protect?

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