When President Bush asked Clarence Thomas to be a Supreme Court justice, he said he had a Forrest Gump moment, but that “when the president calls, there’s only one answer you’re supposed to give.”
He hoped and prayed that he would not get the call. He was 43 when he accepted the position.
Supreme Court Justice Thomas spoke to a crowd of about 300 people in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard on Friday morning. He also spoke to law students here two years ago.
“I’ve returned to burden them with my presence,” Thomas said.
Four law students were selected to join Thomas on Friday in a “conversation,” not a lecture. All five of them sat on chairs in a line on the stage and handed the microphone to whoever needed to speak.
The students were Lauren Humphries, David Maass, Eric Netcher and Zack Smith. Humphries is in her first year of law school, while the other three students are in their third year.
Robert Jerry, dean of the school, introduced Thomas as the “longest serving and most influential Supreme Court justice.”
Thomas grew up in the South, during the time of segregation in schools, and he remarked that back then, it was not possible to be on this campus or any other campus in the 11th Circuit, the circuit he currently presides over.
He said he “waxes poetic” whenever he travels back to the South. He loves seeing live oak trees, Spanish moss and humidity. He also enjoys talking and mingling at conferences that he attends in the 11th circuit.
He said he makes sure to spend time with law students whenever he visits campuses to let them know that the clouds will clear. For him, “law school was as clear as cement.”
“Law school was a horror story,” Thomas said, instead of giving any specific stories from tough classes or exams.
Thomas said he was “pretty closed-minded” when he was in law school, and he leaned pretty extremely to the left. He said school is the time to sit, listen and be honest with people. He used to be very focused and very upset with the injustices of the world.
His grandfather used to ask him, “Boy, you are there now. What are you gonna do?”
If you asked him that same question today, he’d say that his job is just to interpret laws and make decisions. They don’t have the “luxury of opining without deciding.”
His outlook on life now is one of positivity, and he said that’s because of the people around him when he grew up. He said some consider people with letters after their name, like doctors, to be influential he he learned a lot from people who have life experience.
“From each of you, I learn things,” Thomas said.
Thomas is not concerned if people know him or the other Supreme Court justices, but that people should know what they do. He said that some institutions fabricate camps and conflicts that don’t exist instead of what they do.
He said he figured he shouldn’t wimp out on his job when people all around him are being asked to go to war.
Thomas’s main job is adhering to the oath he took when he was sworn into office.
“I swore to God that I’d do my job a certain way,” Thomas said. He tries to make the language of his opinions and decisions accessible and not condescending.
When asked if his opinion on affirmative action had changed since being a part of the Supreme Court, he simply answered “no” and passed the microphone to the next student to ask a question. The crowd applauded.
The media, he said, has transitioned from “constructively critical to destructively cynical” and that too much cynicism in our world can be corrosive.
“People talk about eating less fat in your diet, but what about the diet of the soul?” Thomas asked.
His role models encompass everyone from Frederick Douglass to a toothless janitor in one of the Senate buildings. “Models are all over the place, if we will listen,” Thomas said.
Thomas hasn’t thought about what his professional legacy should be. He told his clerks when they write his epitaph, that it should be: “He did his job, he died.” He reasoned that he’s not going to be alive to read about his legacy anyway.
He finished paying off his student loans when he was in his third term on the Supreme Court, but it was a “wise investment.”
One of the main points that emerged during this discussion was that there can be an extreme focus on the rankings or tiers of law students and the schools they graduated from.
“Don’t buy into the notion that you are excluded from opportunities in life because of where you are,” Thomas said. “Don’t let the notion of tiers stop you from access.”
Many of his own clerks did not come from Ivy League schools, and he prefers it that way.
“I encourage you to stay positive,” Thomas said during his closing remarks.
As they did when he entered the courtyard, the crowd stood to give Thomas a standing ovation when the conversation concluded.
Tommy and Debbie Smith, parents of one of the students on stage, said that they were very proud of their son.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tommy said. “I agree with Justice Thomas on a lot of issues, and his approach is dead-on.”
One of the students presented him with a “small Gator gift” for visiting the campus and asked if he would do a “Gator chomp.” He thanked them for the gift and gladly complied.
Here is the @WUFTNews live Twitter coverage of the event: