In the 32 years since Justice Thomas came through the fire of his confirmation hearings and onto the Supreme Court, he has assembled an army of influential acolytes unlike any other — a network of like-minded former clerks who have not only rallied to his defense but carried his idiosyncratic brand of conservative legal thinking out into the nation’s law schools, top law firms, the judiciary and the highest reaches of government.
The former clerks’ public defense of the justice was “unparalleled in the history of the court,” said Todd C. Peppers, a professor of public affairs at Roanoke College and the author of “Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of the Supreme Court Law Clerk.” “It’s frankly astonishing.”
For Justice Thomas, the letter came at a time of both trial and triumph. He had become the face of long-simmering questions about the high court’s ethical guidelines. But he was also at the height of his influence. The court’s senior justice, he had spent years on the losing side of cases, writing minority opinions grounded in his strict originalist interpretations of the Constitution. Now that former President Donald J. Trump had given the court a conservative supermajority, Justice Thomas was a guiding voice for a new judicial mainstream.
He was playing a long game, and his former clerks were among its most important players.
Now the tides have turned, and at least 18 of those former clerks have served as state, federal or military judges, nearly three-quarters of them appointed by Mr. Trump to federal courts, where they have ruled on issues like voting rights and access to the abortion pill. Roughly 10 more served in Mr. Trump’s administration; nearly a dozen made his Supreme Court short lists. Former Thomas clerks have argued, and won, several of the most momentous Supreme Court cases of recent years.
The network also includes a number of “adopted clerks” who never worked for Justice Thomas but are invited to events and receive clerk communications. Among them are high-profile conservatives including Leonard Leo, the judicial kingmaker of the Federalist Society, Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Alex Azar, a Trump cabinet secretary.