End-of-session update: The bill was not passed by the Georgia General Assembly.
The Georgia Senate on Tuesday approved a proposal to install a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the state Capitol.
Senate Bill 69 would add Thomas to the gallery of famous Georgians honored with a statue on the Capitol grounds. No public funds would be spent on the statute. But the proposal sparked a debate that underscored the volatile politics of a closely divided swing state.
In another demonstration of partisan division, the Senate also approved a resolution honoring the group Greater Georgia Action and its chair, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
Supporters of the Thomas proposal said he has served with distinction and is worthy of honor in his home state.
“SB 69 honors the hard work and achievement of a local kid born in poverty but who has gone on to serve the highest court in our nation for decades,” said its sponsor, Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, who knows Thomas’ family.
Opponents cited Thomas rulings on issues such as civil rights and abortion, as well as allegations that his wife supported former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
“Given the controversial nature of Justice Thomas and his tenure has not ended, why are we voting on this?” said Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson.
Honoring people and groups is a common and usually uncontroversial practice at the Capitol. But the effort to honor Thomas has sparked substantial debate.
A native of Pin Point on the Georgia coast, Thomas, 74, was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. He became the court’s second Black justice and is now its longest-serving member.
But his confirmation followed contentious hearings featuring Anita Hill’s allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her.
More recently, Thomas gained attention because his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, backed former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
Last year the Senate approved a measure honoring Clarence Thomas with a statute. But it did not get a vote in the House.
Now some Republican senators are trying again.
SB 69 would authorize a Thomas monument inside the Capitol or on its grounds. And it would create a committee of lawmakers to oversee the project.
The statue would be designed, procured and placed by the Capital Art Standards Commission, subject to approval by the legislative committee. It would be paid for with donations from private individuals and organizations.
Democrats said Thomas is a controversial figure whose rulings — including last year’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade and end the nation’s constitutional protections for abortion — have undermined civil and women’s rights. They also cited his wife’s support for overturning the presidential election.
“His service is problematic,” said Sen. Nan Orrock-D-Atlanta. “There’s a cloud over his service.”
Republicans dismissed such concerns. Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, noted that Thomas has not been indicted for any crimes.
The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 32-20. It now goes to the House of Representatives.
The Senate also approved Senate Resolution 65, which commends “the work and achievements of Greater Georgia Action Inc. as well as its chairwoman, former United States Senator Kelly Loeffler.”
Loeffler founded Greater Georgia to register conservative voters. Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said it’s one thing to honor Loeffler for her public service but another to honor partisan political activity.
Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, R-Macon, said the measure honors Loeffler and said Greater Georgia has registered voters from across the political spectrum. It passed by a vote of 31-17.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution