Justice Clarence Thomas First Principles Award

Each year, the Gray Center presents the “Justice Clarence Thomas First Principles Award,” an honor bestowed upon an outstanding jurist who has shown exemplary fidelity and courage in commitment to the first principles of constitutional originalism, individual liberty, and faithful application of the rule of law. 


2021: Laurence H. Silberman, U.S. Circuit Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit


Last Thursday, the Gray Center partnered with the Heritage Foundation in a celebration of Justice Clarence Thomas’s thirty years on the U.S. Supreme Court. During the event, the Gray Center presented its inaugural “Justice Clarence Thomas First Principles Award” to Laurence H. Silberman, U.S. Circuit Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

C. Boyden Gray, Former White House Counsel and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, delivered the award to Judge Silberman.

Judge Silberman accepts the inaugural Justice Clarence Thomas First Principles Award
Photo Credit: Willis Bretz

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial about the award, honoring Judge Silberman for his accomplishments. Here is the full text:

Clarence Thomas is celebrating his 30th anniversary on the Supreme Court. And how fitting it is that the Gray Center at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University honored that milestone last week with its first annual Justice Clarence Thomas First Principles Award. Even more fitting is that the first honoree is Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Silberman has taken senior status but continues to hear cases at age 86. He is one of the all-time giants of the federal bench, and he may be the most influential judge never to have sat on the Supreme Court. Dozens of his former law clerks, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, have populated the federal bench, the executive branch, and even a law school faculty or two.

Judge Silberman is revered as a judge for his fealty to the law as written and the proper understanding of the Constitution. In 2007 (Parker v. D.C.), he plumbed the historical record to explain how the District of Columbia’s sweeping regulation of firearms violated the Second Amendment. His opinion offered a constitutional roadmap that was the basis for Justice Scalia’s landmark opinion in Heller v. D.C. that found the right to bear arms is an individual right and not merely for militias.

In 1988 (In re Sealed Case), he held that the independent counsel statute violated the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The Supreme Court failed to agree in one of its worst decisions, Morrison v. Olson. But Judge Silberman’s view was echoedin Justice Scalia’s famous dissent in Morrison that has been vindicated by history.

The judge proved in the first ObamaCare case that he could rule against his policy preferences if he believed the law required it. His opinion found against the constitutional challenge to the law on grounds that he was obliged to follow the precedent of Wickard v. Filburn. The Supreme Court ruled differently on the Commerce Clause, but the High Court has the luxury of interpreting its own precedents.

As deputy Attorney General in the 1970s, Judge Silberman was asked by Congress to testify on the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s secret and confidential files and so was obliged to read them. In a 2005 op-ed in these pages, he called examining those files the “single worst experience of my long governmental service.” He vowed to take the secrets he read about politicians to his grave, and so they have never leaked to this day.

The judge also did a great service by answering George W. Bush’s call to co-chair (with former Sen. Chuck Robb) the commission that investigated the intelligence failure on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The commission found lamentable failures but put to rest the partisan claims of deception. In a time when too many people think judges are politicians in robes, Judge Silberman has shown by example how to live and work by first principles.

Additionally, other media outlets gave their praise to Justice Thomas and the event:

“…the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at Antonin Scalia Law School hosted a night to remember. We celebrated Justice Thomas’s thirtieth anniversary on the bench. It was truly a star-studded affair.”-Josh Blackman, Reason

“As the country recovers from a pandemic and faces a momentous term at the Court, [Justice Thomas’s] humility and steadfastness and his triumphs over adversity provide a tangible source of optimism for those who seek to preserve faith, family, principle, and liberty in American life.”-Jennifer L. Mascott, Co-Executive Director of the Gray Center, National Review

“Impressive and vast, [Justice Thomas’s] body of work touches on almost every aspect on constitutional law, including free speech and religion, criminal law and procedure, equality, and the separation of powers and federalism. He stands as the justice most committed to the idea that the Constitution means what the Framers understood it to mean.”-John Yoo, Professor Law at the University of California at Berkeley, National Review

“Meanwhile, [Justice Thomas] has amassed more than 100 former law clerks, and some of these faithful followers have gone on to serve in the highest level of government and the judiciary…Thomas — to steal a word from the Gen Z culture — is now an influencer.”-Ariane de Vogue, CNN

The Gray Center will begin accepting nominations in June of each year for the award, which will be announced and presented annually each October by the Gray Center.