The Blatt Watch by Peter Blatt: A Supreme Court Justice Shows Us How The World Works

From the desk of Peter Blatt

January 13, 2013

Have you heard of Clarence Thomas? Perhaps you know only of his name, or you know that he is one of the most ultra-conservative Supreme Court judges to ever preside. Maybe you’re familiar with his sharp, divisive rulings and opinions that span almost two dozen years on the bench and his against-the-grain dissents on matters of all varieties of public interest.

Maybe you remember the controversy of his confirmation itself, when it was revealed that he was suddenly the target of a Federal workplace sexual harassment suit filed by Anita Baker that the accused perpetrated many years earlier, but was just now coming to the surface.

Yup, the media has had its hands full of Justice Thomas material since at least the early 1990’s when he was confirmed to the Court. And guess what? He was in the news again this week. To understand the severe futility of the “news”, however, you’ll have to know one quirky little fact about Justice Thomas: he hasn’t spoken from the bench during Court proceedings since 2006.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the Supreme Court hears its cases, then a little social studies refresher is in order. It’s a give-and-go style of debate. The lawyer who is specially trained to argue in the High Court on behalf of the appellate presents his arguments, and as he stands to deliver his points, the judges hammer him with questions, concerns, refutes, and rebuttals, and language that many Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) watchers spend many hours of energy and time attempting to decipher and deduce what each particular judge’s position will ultimately be in the decision.

Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas – bored on the bench or just dialectically selective?

The Court inflicts the same scorching lashings to the argument presented by the respondent’s lawyer, and they eventually recess when the hearing is over to conduct deliberations to form an opinion, which is handed down typically weeks later. That opinion becomes the law and sets precedent for future cases to be decided.

So while the rest of the eight SCOTUS judges are verbally, and some would sometimes hostilely engaged with counsel from both sides, Clarence Thomas just kind of sits there, rocks in his chair, and does what many observers would describe as “listening, but possibly also contemplating which brand of potato chips his wife asked him to pick up for the Super Bowl party next month.”

On Monday, the Honorable Justice Thomas spoke during proceedings for a constitutional case hearing. And just what did he say that sent the media in such a tizzy? It was an offhanded joke, barely audible and overlooked by the court reporter, about Ivy League lawyers, and in particular, those that graduate from Yale, his alma mater.

Was it a ground-shaking revelation that turned the course of the case in such a dramatic moment that it rivals any prime-time courtroom thriller TV show, which will unequivocally alter the Court order and history for decades to come? Of course not. So why is the media treating the incident this way?

Because this is what the media does! This is their job. It’s a beast, a 24 hour news cycle that needs to be fed every hour, on the hour. The mass media tizzy that ensued following the Justice’s off-the-cuff, hardly muttered comment serves in my mind as a prevailing and false notion that whatever they report, it must be important.

It reminds me of the hysteria leading up to the Fiscal Cliff deadline. This was a piece of legislation first introduced to the House in June of 2012. It wasn’t until November, after the elections were over, that the media clenched its powerful jaws around the story. By that time it had been old hat in Washington. But for the rest of us, it was the next sudden disaster – and like so many other over-bloated headline-grabbers the beast churns out, it came and went, and really, not much has changed.

I kept most of my clients exposed to the markets throughout the end of the year, because although I knew investors were reacting to the news by selling their positions, I also knew that as soon as it all blew over, the market would rally back. By being keen to the over-hyper sensitivity of the markets and remaining steadfast in the face of the madness for the sake of long-term investment discipline, my clients avoided unnecessary turnover in their portfolios and eliminated exposure to the potential for poorly-timed trades on both sides of the dip and rally.

That, and the portfolio I’ve chosen is conservative and solid – it has an audited track record of not losing money over the last 12 years.

I’m in Texas this week on business, meeting clients and learning new things; I’ll update you all on my travels next week.

Until next time,

Peter Blatt

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