Justice Clarence Thomas, shown last month in Virginia, recently shared his thoughts on his work and sources of comfort
April 14, 2009
Reticent Justice Opens Up to a Group of Students
By ADAM LIPTAK
Justice Clarence Thomas has not asked a question from the Supreme Court bench since Feb. 22, 2006. He speaks only to announce his majority opinions, reading summaries in a gruff monotone. Glimpses of Justice Thomas in less formal settings are rare.
But he turned up in a Washington ballroom the other night to respond to questions from the winners of a high school essay contest. His answers and the remarks that preceded them provided a revealing look at his worldview these days.
Justice Thomas talked about his own school days, reminiscing fondly about seeing “a flag and a crucifix in each classroom.” He talked about his burdens and his dark moods and about seeking inspiration in speeches and movies. And though the dinner was sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute, he admitted to an uneasy relationship with the whole idea of rights.
The institute had arranged for a fancy hot-pink lectern that glowed from the inside, and it was odd to see Justice Thomas, who is wary of ostentation, standing behind it. His plain-spoken manner was in sharp contrast to his surroundings.
“I tend to be morose sometimes,” the justice said.
“I am rounding the last turn for my 18th term on the court,” he added, but his work — “this endeavor,” he called it, “or, for some, an ordeal” — has not gotten easier. “That’s one thing about this job,” he said. “You get a little tired.”
But he said he had found solace in his den.
“Sometimes, when I get a little down,” Justice Thomas said wearily, he goes online. “I look up wonderful speeches, like speeches by Douglas MacArthur, to hear him give without a note that speech at West Point — ‘duty, honor, country.’ How can you not hear those words and not feel strongly about what we have?”
He continued: “Or how can you not reminisce about a childhood where you began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance as little kids lined up in the schoolyard and then marched in two by two with a flag and a crucifix in each classroom?”
A favorite movie can be a comfort, too.
“I have on many occasions or a number of occasions when things were becoming particularly routine gone down to my basement to watch ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ” he said. “I can’t tell you why that particular movie, except we have it and it’s about something important in our lives — World War II.”
The event, on March 31, was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.
“Today there is much focus on our rights,” Justice Thomas said. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.”
“I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?”
He gave examples: “It seems that many have come to think that each of us is owed prosperity and a certain standard of living. They’re owed air-conditioning, cars, telephones, televisions.”
Those are luxuries, Justice Thomas said.
“I have to admit,” he said, “that I’m one of those people that still thinks the dishwasher is a miracle. What a device! And I have to admit that because I think that way, I like to load it. I like to look in and see how the dishes were magically cleaned.”
He was asked how his religious faith influenced his work on the court.
“I think that it really gives content to the oath that you took,” Justice Thomas said. “You say, ‘So help me God.’ ”
“There are some cases that will drive you to your knees,” he added. “In those moments you ask for strength and wisdom to have the right answer and the courage to stand up for it. Beyond that, it would be illegitimate, I think, and a violation of my oath to incorporate my religious beliefs into the decision-making process.”
The questions from students were read to Justice Thomas, and the first one seemed to throw him off. “Since the Civil War, what has changed the way Americans view the Constitution the most and why?” an unidentified student asked.
Justice Thomas gave a rambling response, touching on the Fourteenth Amendment, the rights of freed slaves, the application of parts of the Bill of Rights to the states and Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that endorsed the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
“I’m sure there are other things that have happened,” he said, wrapping up his answer. “So I would have to say just off the top of my head the Fourteenth Amendment. And I bet you someone’s going to hear that and say, well, no, it’s the dormant commerce clause or something.”
That was a curious aside. Few Americans could name the dormant commerce clause, and it has no obvious connection to how popular views of the Constitution changed after the Civil War.
In any event, Justice Thomas seemed a little sensitive to the sort of second-guessing that comes with the territory for those who sit on the Supreme Court.
“This job is easy for people who’ve never done it,” he said later. “What I have found in this job is they know more about it than I do, especially if they have the title ‘law professor.’ ”