Your Honor, My Honor: Meeting Justice Thomas
On November 11, 2005, I (Brett Harris) had the incredible honor of accompanying Alabama Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker to the sixth Albritton Lecture at the University of Alabama School of Law, delivered by United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (This is just one of the many perks intern life with Justice Parker provides.)
Afterwards I was privileged to attend a special dinner in honor of Justice Thomas, as the guest of Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals Justice A. Kelli Wise. During the course of the evening I had the opportunity to speak with Justice Thomas, shake his hand, and of course, get a picture with him.
Who Is He?
Justice Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948), has been an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1991. Considered part of the "conservative wing" in the current court, Justice Thomas is the second African-American to serve on the nation's highest court (Justice Thurgood Marshall was the first) and, until the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005, was the youngest justice. [Dates and Facts Courtesty Wikipedia]
Interestingly, in January of this year, Justice Clarence Thomas presided over a private swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court for Tom Parker after he won election to the Alabama Supreme Court. In a statement issued on the day he was sworn in, Justice Parker said, "I requested to be sworn in by Justice Thomas because if anyone symbolizes courage under fire, it's Justice Clarence Thomas. He is a man who stands up for what he believes and defends our Constitution even when viciously attacked."
Where Did You Go? (A Picture Is Worth...)
Inside the Room 287-288 at University of Alabama School of Law. The absolutely beautiful Yacht Club.
Notice a marine-type theme?
For those who attended the sixth Albritton Lecture, and for all of you reading, Justice Clarence Thomas has given us a very special gift. As he put it, "most of you probably aren't interested in hearing a lecture on the dormant commerce clause," so instead, "what I really want, is to open up to your questions . . . [and] to respond to the things that you're interested in."
"I will try to answer as many as I can. If I don't have an answer, I will tell you that I don't have an answer. If I don't wanna answer, I will tell you I don't wanna answer. You say, "Why?" Well, I say, "I don't feel like it." [Audience Laughter] Now that's a full explanation! [Audience Laughter] But the chances are, if I can answer I will try to answer."After saying that, Justice Thomas, one of the most powerful men in the world, spent two-and-a-half hours answering any and every question law students, state judges, and other guests had for him.
As you might gather from the quotation above, Justice Thomas is friendly, funny, animated, down-to-earth, and tremendously approachable. The atmosphere was so casual that you felt you were sitting in your living room have a one-on-one conversation with your grandfather. Only this man was a member of the United States Supreme Court.
Justice Thomas answers a young lady's question regarding the court's role in protecting the rights of minorities.
Justice Thomas invited everyone there to take a peek into the inner dynamics and workings of the Supreme Court, and that invitation alone spoke volumes about the approachability and personability of these seeming Kings and Queens in an Ivory Tower.
Towards the end of the Q&A session, Justice Thomas remarked, "I do believe, and my hope is, that I have brought some of the Court to you all, as more than a newspaper article or an issue you're interested in."
You would expect a Supreme Court Justice to answered questions on hot-topics like judicial activism, stare decises, the new Chief Justice, and Roe v. Wade; and Justice Thomas did. But what impressed me the most was that this great man was willing to tell a twelve-year-old girl what his favorite subjects in school were; to share his opinion on athletes getting paid; to tell the story of his early life; and to share, on request, the most painful aspects of his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
These are just a few of the many questions, personal and judicial, that Justice Thomas answered over a two-and-a-half hour period. And if that is not special, then very few things are.
What Did He Say ...
... About the CONFIRMATION PROCESS?
"The whole process of trying to ferret out the personal agenda during the confirmation process is an effort that I think isn’t worth the price that we’re paying. It’s just not happening.... About the THE MEDIA/COMMENTATORS?
And I think the only thing it does is it rats out the agenda of the people asking the questions. [Audience Laughter]"
"In the game of football, the judges are the referees. Now you're going to have a big game tomorrow, suppose we had to vote on who should be referees, and we had a record of all the calls they'd made against Alabama, and all the calls they'd made for Auburn in the crucial games, or all the calls they'd made for LSU, all the holding calls they've made against Alabama. Now we all know that if we are avid Alabama fans we will vote against the referees who have made calls against us, whether they were valid calls or not, because we are fans.
The sense of what’s happening to your judiciary is that people who want certain outcomes are now in a big debate about who should be making the calls about our constitution.
But none of that has anything to do with whether or not a judge is qualified or has the integrity or character to do the job. It is about whether I will get my way. And as fans in a football game tomorrow, we want our way.
I’m a huge Nebraska Cornhusker fan, and in every game we have been robbed this year. [Audience Laughter] I have no idea what these referees are thinking, not calling holding against Texas Tech or all these other teams who run up and down the field on us. It’s clearly holding, I didn’t see the game yet, [Audience Laughter] but it was clearly holding, I heard it on the Internet. [Audience Laughter]
But my point is that, that is no way to select good referees, and we know it. But if it’s not a good way to select good referees, based on outcome and what we think the outcome ought to be, then how is it a good way to select judges?"
[This is a famous statement made by Justice Thomas during his confirmation process in 1991. It was not made during the Albritton Lecture] "This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree."
"I think that when a lawyer comments on the judiciary and judicial decisions, they should do so as lawyers and professors. Not as people with personal agendas for personal outcomes. If you require judges not to have personal agendas then I think the respected commentators should also not have agendas.... About the ABORTION DEBATE?
Now, when I say that I think ESPN has an agenda against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. [Audience Laughter] That’s just a footnote. [Audience Laughter] But the point is simply this: people have a lot of opinions, people who have particular reasons to have outcomes, who want particular outcomes from the court, [and] say a lot about the court as though they are objective observers, or impartial observers. They are not impartial observers.
I think that as a good lawyer or a good observer of the court you should try to do what we ask the law students to do: to think through the decision or the methodology that we’re talking about, and try and explain it and then come to a rational conclusion as to why we disagree with it.
I have to do it. No matter how upset I am I have to take a walk around the block and do it. And I tell my law clerks, I will tell them in a minute what my biases are. You know, I said to my law clerks, “I don’t think people ought to have dope, grow dope at home and smoke it.” That’s right. That’s my view. Now, what does the Commerce Clause permit? In my view the Commerce Clause permits the lady in California to grow her dope and smoke it. That’s up in California. And that’s different from my bias.
So if I have to work to sort out the biases the gentleman up there is referring to, and you do work at it, then I think that the people who comment on what we do should make a similar act, particularly if they consider themselves a responsible commentators."
"I joined the [former] Chief Justice in his dissent in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, saying we should overrule Roe v. Wade, for a variety of reasons. Basically, to me it has no basis in the Constitution. Now that doesn’t have anything to do with whether as a matter of policy you’re for it or against it abortion, I don’t see how it’s in this document. And if it’s not there, if you honestly believe it’s not there, then you have to come out that way. That doesn’t mean it’s good policy or bad policy, it’s just not there."Oh, I Almost Forgot:
[Justice Thomas made the following statement regarding the confirmation battles that were fought over his own nomination, Chief Justice Robert's nomination, and that will be fought over future nominations to the Supreme Court.] "I think we all should be honest with one another that the only issue, the central issue in all of this, is abortion. It's not the other things that people throw out. The whole judiciary now is being held, in a sense, hostage to that one issue."
I was very fortunate to not only meet Justice Thomas, shake his hand, and get a picture with him, but also to speak with him for a few minutes, thank him for his service to our nation, and share with him about the work Alex and I are doing. Upon hearing how old we are Justice Thomas became very enthusiastic, "Seventeen is a good time to start." He repeated, "That's a good time to start. Excellent."