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Clarence Thomas, an associate justice on the Supreme Court, has spoken out against student loans as "a crushing burden". He's also renowned for his opinions on free speech rights and the establishment clause of the Constitution.
He was raised in a poor Gullah community near Savannah, Georgia as the son of devout Catholic parents. Though aspiring to become a priest, his dream was dashed when he realized the church's complicity in racism had resulted in systemic inequality.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Justice Thomas' tenure on the Supreme Court is how much his personal life has informed his judgment and approach to cases. From his days as assistant attorney general in Missouri to his time on the EEOC, he has had an illustrious list of employers and mentors over his long career.
Thomas' grandfather was of great significance; a former army captain who made his living as both a farmer and stockbroker. He was an incredible force of nature and an important influence in Thomas' life.
His grandfather's example motivated him to pursue a career in law. After studying for three years at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, he decided to relocate to Washington, D.C., in order to attend Yale Law School.
He then served on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, being appointed a federal judge in 1989. For over ten years since, he has been an active participant in his local community and an outspoken advocate for students' and workers' rights - becoming one of America's leading voices on social justice issues.
On Tuesday, when the Supreme Court hears arguments on President Joe Biden's student loan debt relief plan, which justices are likely to vote in favor will depend on their individual experiences. For instance, a justice who was still paying off his own student loans may be more inclined to support the administration's plans than one whose debts had been completely discharged through bankruptcy.
Thomas' debt was so immense that it prompted him to write of its weight as "a crushing weight." Growing up poor, he went on to work for both Missouri's attorney general and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; however, these loans made it difficult for him to pay his bills or attend college. Subsequently, Thomas battled alcoholism which ultimately put an end to his work career.
Despite his personal difficulties, he went on to become the court's longest serving justice. At mid-40s and in his third year on the High Court, he paid off all of his loans from Yale Law School.
According to the National Consumer Law Center, this ruling was a minor victory for student loan borrowers. It clarifies that bankruptcy judges must independently determine if a borrower's plan to repay their student debt would cause undue hardship. Furthermore, according to Alan Morrison of George Washington University Law School, this ruling imposes an additional duty on courts that approve such plans.
Espinosa had agreed to repay his $13,000 student loan over five years in regular installments every two weeks, covering both principal and interest owed of $4,000. Eventually, however, the lender confirmed his repayment plan had been approved and did not appeal it.
Thomas wrote for a unanimous court that the error in the deal was not serious enough to invalidate it. Instead, they added that bankruptcy judges now have an obligation to ensure student loan debts are discharged fairly and don't allow creditors to "sleep on their rights" and come back after the deal has been completed. They noted Congress' policy of treating student loan debt differently than other kinds of debt, holding that bankruptcy courts can only discharge a debt when there is proof that it will cause undue hardship to the debtor.
Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia during the Jim Crow era of segregation. As a Catholic, he attended seminary school with the intention of becoming a priest. Later, Thomas went on to Yale University and earned his law degree in 1974.
He was appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982, a government agency responsible for upholding federal laws against discrimination. After working briefly for Monsanto Chemical Corporation, he returned to the Department of Education as assistant secretary for civil rights. This position remained vacant until 1990 when President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court.
After his confirmation hearings, Thomas narrowly won a vote in the Senate to become the second African-American justice on the court. Throughout his tenure as justice, Thomas has consistently sided with conservatives on the court; voting with them more than 80% of the time.
Thomas has become known for writing more solo dissents than any other member of the court in recent years, often criticizing precedent-overturning cases like Citizens United v. FEC (which Thomas labeled a "falsehood") and United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group (which Thomas described as an "unreasonable exercise of power").
Justice Thomas stands out among his colleagues on the Supreme Court as someone who takes strong views on race, religion and the First Amendment. As such, his dissents have often caused his colleagues to question his decisions.
He has, for instance, advocated that the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution--which prohibits unreasonable searches--be applied equally to police and defendants alike. Furthermore, he supported drug testing in schools and dissented from cases such as Georgia v. Randolph--a case which prohibited warrantless searches with one resident's approval and another's opposition--among many others.
His opinions have also challenged the constitutionality of allowing students to carry guns on school campuses, siding with police in cases such as Board of Education v. Earls, which upheld drug tests for students involved in extracurricular activities.
Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991 with a narrow vote, and has served on the bench ever since - becoming its longest-serving member. Throughout his time on the court, Thomas has achieved many notable victories, such as overturning Roe v Wade which had granted women the right to an abortion.
Justice Clarence Thomas has had his share of struggles when it comes to student loans. Growing up in Jefferson City, Missouri and attending a state university for four years before taking out loans to finance law school at Yale, Thomas wrote about his debt struggles in his memoir and how one lender even went so far as to foreclose on his home due to late payments and delinquency notices sent to his grandparents' home in Savannah, Georgia.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard two high-profile student loan challenges with a final ruling expected in June. Although not an expert when it comes to student debt issues, its conservative majority has been slow to endorse any of President Obama's various loan forgiveness plans. Furthermore, they were charged with finding a way to rein back executive branch powers from meddling with people's wallets. With record numbers of court cases and an ever-expanding list of executive branch power grabs, it appears that judicial branch knows how to do its job well.