More on Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine and Justice Thomas:

In my post on this last week, I forgot to include one item that strikes me as especially telling. It's from p. 102:

Indeed, it is difficult to point to a single truly significant majority opinion Thomas had written. Many of his assignments were unanimous opinions on minor subjects -- "dogs," in the Court's parlance. When asked which of his opinions was his favorite, Thomas would usually cite a 1996 case where the Court unanimously overturned an award to a railroad worker who had sustained injuries after trying to manipulate a "knuckle" between two cars. "It was a little case that didn't matter to anyone," Thomas said in a speech. "It's almost inconsequential. It was a fun little opinion. I went back into the history of trains." (In fact, as the journalist Tony Mauro first reported, the case was not inconsequential. Thomas's opinion made it much harder for railroad workers to recover for the horrific accidents that can take place when they climb between two railcars in the process of coupling. Years after the decision, the plaintiff in the case, William Hiles, was still bedridden most of the time.)

This is precisely the sort of thing you wouldn't expect in a book that takes the Supreme Court seriously. The first sentence is probably right, and a sensible evaluation of Justice Thomas's influence as a majority opinion writer (as opposed to as one of nine votes, or as a dissenter). It's a judgment call, of course, but my sense is that indeed Justice Thomas had not been assigned to write the majority opinion in the most high-profile, controversial, or otherwise important cases.

Look, though, at the parenthetical. The case, we're told, is not inconsequential because it had an effect on some litigants, and because the particular litigant in this case couldn't recover for his serious injury. But Justice Thomas was of course talking about how inconsequential the case was by the standards of the Court. He and other Court-watchers know that the Court agrees to about 1% of all the cases it's asked to take. It doesn't take cases, especially cases on statutory interpretation, just to resolve an error below, or even set forth the right rule; it takes them to set the lower courts straight on an important topic that is likely to arise repeatedly.

And by the standards of the Court's cases, this particular case, Nortfolk & Western Ry. Co. v. Hiles, is indeed of little consequence. Consider one measure of consequence -- the degree to which the case is cited by other cases. (This isn't a perfect measure, but it's a good first cut.) Hiles is in volume 516 of U.S. Reports, which contains 33 cases decided by opinion. Those 33 cases put together were cited in 1769 cases in 2006, for an average of about 50 yearly cites per case. Hiles was cited in 1 case in that year, a little below the average of 2 cases per year since it was handed down.

I can understand how an average editorialist who wants to complain about Justice Thomas could make this sort of argument. No case in which people were maimed and as a result of which others would be denied recovery, the argument would go, should be treated as inconsequential or insignificant. Justices should treat each case as important. Oh, and let's add a whiff of "the youngest, cruelest justice" -- how could Justice Thomas be so insensitive to the plight of poor William Hiles?

But someone who is writing a serious book about the Supreme Court can't, I think, take this sort of view. The Justices are asked to hear several thousand cases each year. Many of them center around one or another tragedy. Consequence to one or a few people, while enough to bring a tear to the eye of some journalists, can't be the measure of a case's significance to a serious commentator on the Supreme Court.

And of course Jeffrey Toobin takes precisely this view in the opening sentence: None of Justice Thomas's majority opinions were "truly significant." Of course all of them affected the litigants, and affected the law, but significance is a comparative matter. Yet let Justice Thomas refer to the "[not] truly significant" cases as "almost inconsequential," and he gets condemned for apparently neglecting the importance of horrific accidents and an injured plaintiff (a plaintiff whose legal claim, incidentally, was rejected by a unanimous Court, not just Justice Thomas).

All this, I think, reinforces my diagnosis: What is otherwise a serious book about a serious subject doesn't seem able to maintain its seriousness when it comes to this particular Justice.