ATLANTA (AP) — Republican Georgia lawmakers are again trying to erect a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Georgia native Clarence Thomas on the state Capitol grounds in Atlanta, in what many Democrats, particularly Black ones, see as an insensitive display of partisan power.
The Georgia state Senate voted 32-20 along party lines on Tuesday to mandate a statue of the Pin Point, Georgia, native. Minority Democrats had proposed amending the measure to also mandate a statue of the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, but then pulled back the amendment.
Senate Bill 69 moves to the state House for more debate.
Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican, said he represents Thomas’ birthplace near the coastal city and had known Thomas’ mother.
“This native son of Georgia deserves a place of honor and recognition on our Capitol grounds, a place where future generations of Georgians can learn valuable lessons from his legacy and gain inspiration and belief that their lofty dreams are obtainable too in America, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born,” Watson told senators.
Democrats, though, recoiled. They cited not only Thomas’ confirmation to the court in 1991 amid Anita Hill’s testimony that he had sexually harassed her, but also Thomas’ rulings on the Supreme Court.
“His service is problematic,” said Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta. “There’s a cloud over his service … and that cloud continues today.”
Republicans countered that the Georgia Capitol grounds has a statue of former Democratic Gov. and President Jimmy Carter.
“There are citizens, probably members of this body, that take issue with his policies when he was governor or president, but we respect history,” said Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Republican from Dallas.
The debate came on the same day that Republican senators also pushed through a resolution honoring former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was defeated by Democrat Raphael Warnock in 2020, giving his party a Senate majority. As part of the Republican’s continuing political activity, Loeffler spearheaded an effort last year to elect Republicans to the state Senate, where they now have a 33-23 majority.
Opponents of the statue pointed to Thomas’ concurring opinion last year to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established nationwide access to abortion. In that opinion, he called on his fellow justices to revisit other Supreme Court precedents that legalized same-sex marriage and access to contraception.
Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Decatur Democrat who is Black, called Thomas an “Uncle Tom,” saying the justice is like someone who has “sold his soul to the slave master.”
“There’s a whole laundry list of positions that Justice Thomas has taken that I find offensive,” Jones said. “Sometimes, when I talk to the majority party, I say, ‘Y’all just don’t get it.’”
Democrats also criticized Thomas’ wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, noting records show she texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the 2020 election, urging him to stand with then-President Donald Trump as he falsely claimed there was widespread fraud in the election.
Ginni Thomas later told the House Jan. 6 committee that she regrets the texts and told investigators that her activity after the election was minimal. But Georgia Democrats said Tuesday that they are not yet convinced that Ginni Thomas bore no blame.
“His wife actually encouraged this coup of violence in an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our country’s history,” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Lawrenceville Democrat.
Republicans passed a measure approving a Clarence Thomas statue last year in the state Senate, but it never came to a vote in the state House. This year’s bill says the statue would be paid for with private money.
Democrats had proposed an amendment to the bill to also mandate a statue of Lewis, but pulled the proposal back before it could get a vote. If Republicans had voted for the amendment, Democrats would have been forced to either vote for the Thomas statue or against a Lewis statue.