James Madison University
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Speaker
James Madison Day Lecture
March 15, 2001
Introduced by JMU President Linwood H. Rose:
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is the first sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court to speak on our campus. Some of you may recall that Justice Lewis W. Powell Jr. did speak at a Founders Day, the predecessor program of James Madison Day, in 1988, but that was after his retirement from the Court. Justice Thomas has been a member of our nation's highest court since 1991. Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas had been a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Earlier, he had been chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, assistant attorney general of Missouri and an attorney for the Monsanto Company. He is a native of Georgia, has his bachelor's degree from Holy Cross College and his law degree from Yale Law School. I am honored to welcome to James Madison University the Honorable Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Please give him a Harrisonburg and James Madison University welcome.
Justice Clarence Thomas:
Thank you all very much. President Rose, members of the board of trustees, Sen. Byrd [retired U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. of Virginia], members of the faculty, students, and honored guests. It is, indeed, an honor for me to be here today. I had the opportunity this morning as I was typing in some changes to my lecture to listen to Cool 98.5. I think I was as surprised that they mentioned me as they were as surprised that I would call them. I would like to thank my good friend, Jay Parker, for inviting me. Some years ago when I first arrived in Washington, D.C., I was looking for guidance and one phone call was returned and that was from Jay Parker. It's always good to have friends when you need them, because God knows, you have them when you don't need them.
As I indicated, I am, indeed, honored to join you on this, the Ides of March, as you prepare to celebrate the 250th birthday of James Madison tomorrow. And, he's rightly known and rightly called the father of our Constitution. In the spring of 1787, as Madison left Virginia, then the largest and most influential state, to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he had with him the benefits of his extensive study of governments and the plan he had developed as a result of this study. It was a plan that satisfied both Gov. Edmund Randolph's concern that the integrity of the states be protected and Gen. George Washington's interest in a national authority. Madison's thoughts on government would be presented to the convention as the Virginia Plan. As noted by Ralph Ketcham, a noted Madison biographer, the essence of Madison's plan was what Madison later called a mixed government, designed to preserve, at once, freedom, national dignity and local government. Madison knew that a plan suitable to Randolph's local biases and to Washington's sense of national needs might just have a chance of adoption. I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about the offspring of Mr. Madison's plan, our Constitution.
What is it about our Constitution that has allowed this great nation to enjoy unprecedented political stability and economic and social prosperity for more than two centuries? There are two things that stand above all else: First, the principles upon which the American Constitutional order is based are universal principles, applicable to all people at all times, and, Second, Madison and other Framers made a significant advance in politics and political theory, an advance that allowed them to create a government strong enough to defend itself and the liberties of its people, yet limited enough, that it would itself not become the destroyer of the self same liberties. Let me turn, first, to the principles. We find them most succinctly and, indeed, elegantly stated by Madison's close friend, Thomas Jefferson, in our Declaration of Independence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' Just what did Thomas Jefferson mean when he penned these words in defense of the Revolution, the very revolution that belief in these very same words launched? In an era in which moral relativism often holds sway, the notion that there are some claims so inherently true as to be self-evident seems almost absurd. Yet that is precisely Jefferson's claim, and it has acquired in our nation the elevated status of a sacred political tenet. Abraham Lincoln called it the fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described it as 'the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.' And he ultimately gave his life in his struggle to have America redeem that promissory note. Quite obviously though, Jefferson did not mean that we are all equal in a physical or intellectual sense, or in physical or intellectual attributes. Such would be a self-evident delusion rather than a self-evident truth. No, what Jefferson meant, like John Locke before him, was that we are all created equal by God, endowed with the capacity to reason and with free will, thus sufficiently sharing in human nature as to render it unjust for any man to rule another without consent. This principle of equality is applicable to all human beings at all times, and applies as much to the greatest king as to the lowest laborer or the lowest grunt. A key consequence of this fundamental principle of human equality is that all human beings equally lay claim to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But to be entitled to such rights does not necessarily mean that one is secure in those rights, the darker side of human nature being what it is. As Madison once noted, 'If men were angels, no government would be necessary.' Precisely, because men are not angels, therefore, governments are instituted among men for the purpose of securing the rights to which we all are entitled by virtue of our humanity. Because of the inherent equality of all mankind, however, the only legitimate government is one which derives its powers from the consent of the governed. In order to protect against governmental tyranny, yet at the same time create a government based on consent, the Framers of our Constitution engaged in an unprecedented exercise in popular lawmaking. Rising above ordinary politics, the Framers of our Constitution toiled for months in the summer heat of Philadelphia, not to establish a government, but to draft a proposal for government, which they then submitted for consideration to the people who met through their representatives in state ratifying conventions specially convened for the purpose of deliberating on the proposed form of government. Our federal constitution was adopted only after an elevated process of popular lawmaking – a constitutional convention called for the explicit purpose of amending the existing Articles of Confederation, submission of the proposed Constitution to the people for ratification and ultimate ratification by a super-majority of the people meeting in state ratifying conventions. You know the result – a constitution admired the world over, a constitution that aims to provide enough power to government to ensure that the rights of the people would be secure from both foreign invasion and domestic unrest. But, a constitution that also aims to prevent government from becoming the destroyer of the rights by granting that government only specified enumerated powers and by dividing the government into three principle branches, each of which can check overreaching by the other branches. As Ralph Ketcham observed, 'Madison's persistent inclination was to find safety for freedom in a multiplicity of forces.' That is the government to which we, the people, consented. It remains a just, legitimate government only so long as it stays within the bounds established by its charter, our Constitution. Because men, indeed, are not angels, a government of men will, by its very nature, tend to become tyrannical and, therefore, destructive of the very rights it was instituted to protect. Such a government, therefore, must itself be limited in its powers and structured in such a way as best to protect the rights of individuals even against a majority. And I note that Edmund Burke, in his "Reflections on the Revolution in France," makes this precise point that a majority can be as tyrannical, if not more tyrannical, than a monarch, or as my wife wants me to say, a monarch. To return to Madison's words, 'in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this – you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.'
Which brings me to the second great achievement of our nation's founders. We should always remember that the Framers rebelled against Great Britain not because the British Empire was ineffective or was not strong, but because it had imposed tyranny through arbitary government. True to Madison's words and his plan, they designed a government that was strong enough to defend the governed, yet structured in such a way as to ensure that it would control itself. You are all familiar with the first mechanism that the Framers chose to restrain the powers of the federal government, the separation of powers. The Framers divided the powers of the national government into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Not because they believed that this would lead always to a strong government, but because they believed it would create an inefficient government. They further divided the legislature into two separate houses. They gave the executive a veto over legislation, and they subjected the entire lawmaking process to judicial review – all in the hopes that the three branches would use their inherent powers to check and balance each other. While certain innovations, such as the legislative veto or the line-item veto might improve the operation of government, they are not permitted by the separation of powers, because they would undermine the abilities of the branches to control one another, and thereby, frustrate governmental actions unless they have undergone careful thought, scrutiny and consensus. At times this might make the United States Constitution seem like an anacronistic hindrance that prevents the nation from adopting governmental reforms that have become popular in Europe or Asia. But as Chief Justice Burger wrote: 'The choices we discern as having been made in the Constitutional Convention impose burdens on governmental processes that often seem clumsy, inefficient, even unworkable, but those hard choices are consciously made by men who had lived under a form of government that permitted arbitrary governmental acts to go unchecked.' By creating inefficient central government, the Framers hoped to protect individual liberty and a civil society, which they believed would flourish only without the interference of the government. With governmental efficiency on one side of the ledger, and an expansion of public power and a corresponding reduction in the sphere of private activity and liberty on the other, the Framers clearly struck the balance in favor of individual liberty. Again, as Chief Justice Burger observed, 'With all the obvious flaws of delay, untidiness and potential for abuse, we have not yet found a better way to preserve freedom than by making the exercise of power subject to the carefully crafted restraints spelled out in the Constitution.'
But what has escaped notice of late, and perhaps once for very good reason, is that the Framers established another structural safeguard for individual liberty, and I'm speaking here of federalism. Federalism sometimes has been used to justify what I would consider the most terrible tragedies ever inflicted by Americans on Americans – slavery and segregation. I might add that slavery was the glaring contradiction to the core principles underlying the Constitution. For that reason, the idea of state sovereignty has rightly earned a negative connotation. Nonetheless, federalism, in and of itself, is not an evil or a good. It is just a construct, just as the separation of powers is a construct. They are both means that serve certain ends. They are not ends in and of themselves. It was slavery and segregation, not federalism; the men and women who perpetuated both slavery and segregation were those who committed the wrongs and who perverted the American system of government for their own ends and their own prejudices. It was not federalism. Rightly understood, federalism can advance the same goal as that pursued by the separation of powers or the enumeration of limited federal powers or the Bill of Rights. I suggest that all of these mechanisms have the same purpose: to protect individual liberty and the private ordering of social life, what we sometimes call today, a civil society. The Framers did not believe that separating powers alone would be sufficient to guard against tyrannical government. They saw, for example, that the three branches of the national government could collude in an unconstitutional exercise of power. In order to protect against this possibility, the Framers created a federal, not purely national, system of government. And federalism was to play a purpose similar to that of the separation of powers. As Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, 'In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion alloted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence, a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.' In other words, federalism provides a check on the national government when the separation of legislative from executive from judicial powers alone cannot do the job or does not do it. Madison does not say that federalism necessarily exists to protect the states as institutions, although, that's a subsidiary effect. Rather, federalism, like the separation of powers exists to protect the rights of the people.
This is a theme that has gone unnoticed but which underlies the Court's current federalism jurisprudence. The Court has not always fully explained the larger purposes behind this resurrection of federalism. This is only to be expected. As judges, the members of the Court are more focused on deciding the cases before us, as presented by the facts and as shaped by precedent, rather than articulating broad principles from the outset. Nonetheless, the Court has come in for some sharp criticism, in part, because the restoration of federalism seems to some to be senseless or without purpose. They can't see the overall picture. For me, however, federalism promotes the same purpose as that served by other broad structures of our federal constitution, such as the enumeration of limited federal powers, the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. This multiplicity of constitutional mechanisms checks and controls governmental power, so that a sphere of private activity and individual freedom can flourish free and independent from state interference. Federalism helps accomplish this goal in a number of ways: it enhances self-government by creating a local decision-making system that is closer to the people and, hence, more responsive to their wishes. States will retain jurisdiction over most of the policies that affect the daily lives of their citizens and so they can play a creative role in defining individual rights. States not only tailor national programs to local conditions and needs, the rather bleak role assigned to them by some. They also provide innovation in creating and protecting new rights, an insight that Justice Brennan recognized, urging states to create rights that went beyond the federal Bill of Rights. At a broader level, the existence of numerous states, each making certain decisions concerning the allocation of resources and the balance between public power and private rights creates a beneficial marketplace of policies. Since people can vote with their feet by moving to states with whose policies they agree, they force the states into a competition to offer policies that best protect individuals and their rights. States can even virtuously compete with the federal government to better protect the individual rights of their citizens. But federalism provides more than just a decentralized decision-making system. One might think that federalism serves a purpose in protecting individual liberties simply by defusing power among many different political centers, such as states. That could be achieved just as easily by creating administrative subdivisions with a larger national government, as is the case with many European nations with strong centralized governments. And these nations, to say the least, have not demonstrated a history of protection for individual liberties that has characterized the American experience. Our system of federalism does more than that. It not only defuses power, it also creates independent sovereigns. The state of Virginia, for example, is sovereign in a way that an administrative division of France is not. Virginia has its own government, it has plenary control over certain areas, it administers areas such as criminal law and education, with substantial, if not complete, policy-making freedom. Its governmental operations cannot be commandeered or taxed by another sovereign. Yet, states do not have sovereignty for sovereignty's sake. Instead, the Framers believed that these sovereigns would have an interest in monitoring the activities of the federal government and ensuring that it lives within its enumerated authorities. Keeping the government within the written limits on its power is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, the Framers believed that controlling the federal government through the recognition and protection of independent state sovereigns was necessary to protect, once again, individual liberty. These state sovereigns would provide both constitutional and political checks upon the powers of the national governments. In helping to constrain the federal government, the states would supplement the protections for individual rights as surely as did the Bill of Rights and judicial review. As James Madison declared when he introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, 'If these amendments are incorporated into the Constitution, independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights. They will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of powers in the legislature or executive. They will be naturally led to resist every encroachment upon rights expressly stipulated for in the Constitution by the declaration of rights.' Judicial protection of individual rights, however, would not be the only protection. Madison went on to say, 'Besides this security, there is a great probability that such a declaration in the federal system would be enforced because the state legislatures will jealously and closely watch the operations of this government and be able to resist with more effect every assumption of power than any other power on earth can do. And the greatest opponents to a federal government admit the state legislatures to be sure guardians of the people's liberty.' Madison's comments reveal the last and, perhaps most important way, federalism protects individual liberty. States do not serve individual rights by allowing the decentralization of power. They do not protect them merely by being laboratories of democracy, as Justice Brandeis so famously argued. They also exist as the organizers of resistance to the unwarranted exercise of federal powers. As Publius wrote in Federalist No. 26, 'the state legislature who will always be, not only vigilant, but suspicious and jealous guardians of the rights of the citizens against encroachments by the federal government, from the federal government, will constantly have their attention awake to the conduct of the national rulers and will be ready enough if anything improper appears to sound the alarm to the people and not only be they the voice, but if necessary, the arm of their discontent.'
States provide an alternate source of political loyalty and a training ground for future political leaders. The Framers certainly foresaw the possibility that the nation's leader someday might stray from their duty and seek to expand federal powers for their own benefit. To guard against this, they believed that federalism, by protecting the sovereignty of the states, would create centers of political opposition that could control the excesses of the national government. It is this very sovereignty that the Court continues to protect today. Take away that sovereignty and you undermine the ability of the federalist structure to maintain multiple centers of legal and political power. Now, some see all these Constitutional checks and balances as bothersome or cumbersome or inconvenient impedients to majority rule. Every age has its important policies that some people believe must be enacted at any cost, regardless of the cost to the constitutional structure. Far from being a vise though, these checks and balances – the 'double security,' as Madison called them – double security for our liberties are the genius of our system of government, and I might add, the genius of James Madison. For what is an impedient to majority will is equally an impedient to governmental tyranny. Surely, no one would contend that the majority itself can do no wrong. Our history is replete with all too many instances in which a temporary majority has pursued its own interest at the expense of the individual rights of the minority. Indeed, perhaps we need even more checks on government. But, at the very least, let us retain and reinvigorate the ones we have. Surely, the lives and the liberty of more than 250 million citizens of this great nation warrant that double security. For our liberties designed by our James Madison and the other Founders should be in working order so that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, 'government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the face of this earth.' That, my friends, would be a worthy birthday present for Mr. Madison. Thank you.
[Note: This address was transcribed from an audiotape recording.]
Question and Answer Session with
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
James Madison Day Lecture
at James Madison University
March 15, 2001
JMU President Linwood H. Rose:
Thank you, Justice Thomas. Thank you for enriching our knowledge and for, certainly, enhancing our understanding of the political thought that guided our country and provided and assured the freedom that we enjoy today. Thank you very much. If the ushers would now assist, we would like to have people pass their questions, their cards, to the aisle. The ushers will collect those. Justice Thomas, as I mentioned, has agreed to answer a few questions.
[Note: Audience questions read by Justice Thomas appear in italics]
Justice Thomas: It's hard to censor when there's so many questions.
What do I feel about the sometimes seemingly unrestricted power of judicial review used by the Supreme Court?
As you can glean from my comments, I think that there has to be restraints on all the branches of government, and I have suggested in my writings at the Court that there have to be some restraints on us, that the Court isn't at liberty to do as it pleases. That's why you see us constantly searching for methods of analysis that restrain us. For example, when we say that the words of the Constitution, we have a written constitution unlike England, which has an unwritten constitution, the words mean something. But if we can just make it up or fill in the gaps as we feel, as we please, then we're unrestrained. But we're constantly looking for something, methods of interpretations, narrower rules, reduction in our discretion, so that the Court can't do as it pleases, because that too is lawlessness. And the last thing we need is an unrestrained Court. Some years ago, I was in a question-and-answer session at Court and this schoolteacher asked me in a not-so-pleasant way why I felt the need to interpret the Constitution in such a structured, actually his word was something like narrow or craft way. And I told him, as far as I could see, we had two choices: I could do as I felt like doing with respect to the Constitution or do what the Framers intended that we do. And I assumed that his ideological approach to life was somewhat opposite mine, so I told him, would you like me to sit up here 40 years doing as I pleased? And, he said, you know, you've got a point.
What do you think of Gore's attorney, David Bois, wearing white tennis shoes to the Supreme Court? Actually, I didn't see them. I was otherwise occupied, believe me. I'm one of these people who thinks, though, that you try to attire yourself consistent with the environment, and I have a different view of the environment that would preclude me from wearing tennis shoes in that kind of a circumstance.
Since the election of President Bush, there's been renewed controversy over abortion, and it has been suggested that President Bush's attempt to overturn the important Supreme Court decision of Roe versus Wade, do you feel this is a possibility?
I don't have a clue. I have one vote. We had one case before us in my first term and, what I will comment on because I really don't know, contrary to some of the pundits, I'm at the Court everyday and I've been there everyday for the past 10 terms, and quite frankly, I can't predict my colleagues. I don't know how they can. But the people connect politics with the Court, that is a huge mistake. I don't care which side you're on, it is a huge mistake. It's like a conspiracy theory. It is easy to order the world in that way. But its imprecision is amazingly great. Remember what the last case that we had calling Roe versus Wade into question was Casey, that was my first term. Those in the majority were five Republican appointees; those in the minority were three Republican appointees and one Democrat. Politics and the Court are two different worlds. We are in the same city, but if there is any wall of separation, it's the wall of separation between that political environment and the Court. And it is a waste of time and I think actually counterproductive, if not outright destructive, to try to analyze the Court using a political model.
You recently expressed interest in revisiting the incidental effects doctrine under the Commerce clause. Would you comment on how your reconsideration would alter the Constitutional relationship between the national and state governments?
Much of the authority of the national government has been amassed through the use of the Commerce clause, just a provision that says that Congress shall regulate commerce between the states, the Indian tribes and foreign countries; that's not the exact quote. But the question then becomes to what extent can the government regulate activity that's not obviously commerce, not goods being shipped from Virginia to North Carolina, but something that's being grown on a farm exclusively in Virginia. And that's an actual case. And the question I'm raising is, what are the limits on those powers? Now, how you would exactly limit it is a much more difficult question. But I think it still has to be raised. Just because the answer's difficult doesn't mean you ignore the question. So the point that I was making in Lopez, where I raised it, was simply, we need some limiting principles. How would that alter the relationship? Regardless of how far you went with it, it would restrain the national government so that it does not dominate more state and local governments. And that's the point I was trying to make here. A lot of times when you look at cases, you see the little blocks, you see the little pieces, but you never see the whole structure. And the point that I was simply making here was that, all of this is to protect liberty, and if you have a government, one government that's larger, that gets outside of this construct, then your liberty's at risk. That's my only point.
Do you feel that Affirmative Action has strayed from its original intent? Is reform needed?
I think I've answered that extensively in the past. I have always thought that Affirmative Action was for disadvantaged kids. Not for my son, but for kids who have promise, who have ability and who come from poor circumstances. I don't think there's a one of us in this room who doesn't want to help a disadvantaged kid. But should we help kids who are going to be destroyed or should we do it to their detriment and should we develop programs that capture kids who are from the more advantaged environments based on race? And there's some hard Constitutional questions. And I think, unfortunately, we've gotten into such a major food fight over policy in our country when it comes to issues such as Affirmative Action that you can't have the kinds of discussion that Madison and Jefferson and some of the others must have had when they founded this country, where everybody is prepared and serious and thoughtful and working toward a solution. Now it's a war of words, it's a war of politics, and I don't see where it does any good. And we all know that we can't solve the problems of race and class and disadvantage by simply building more prisons. And I think it would be to all of our advantages not to argue about issues or to wave them as red flags, but rather to just simply say, look, there's some kids out here who have promise and who are from tough circumstances and we have an obligation to help them. I think that if education is important for the average person, a fortiori, it is critical for the disadvantaged person to participate in this society.
What is it to be a minority judge on the Supreme Court having different views than the majority?
I guess it must mean from other blacks or other minorities. It doesn't bother, it's really not, I've been this way all my life. You know I'm one of those who believes you go to school to be educated in order to lead, not to follow blindly. Otherwise, why waste your time being educated? I think it's just wonderful to be able to think these things through. I was just reading, as you could probably tell, Edmund Burke's The Reflection on the French Revolution. I said, why hadn't I read that in college? Because we continue to celebrate the storming of the Bastille, but we didn't hear the other side of it. We didn't hear Burke, except if you saw or read the book, A Tale of Two Cities, or something in literature. I think it's just so important.
Do you face any difficulty or discrimination on your job?
Nope. Maybe I'm being discriminated against in absentia. I don't know what's going on when I'm leave.
Do you feel you play a greater role being the only African American, since you are representing such a large group of people?
The point that I'd like to stress here is that the Court is not a representative body. The Court should be the least representative body. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have people from different groups there, I think that's very important. But this is not a representative body. To the extent that it is, then law isn't law. It's not a discipline. It's something that changes based on your pigmentation. Everything that I've said here to you all that protects individuals certainly protects groups that are treated badly or shabbily if properly enforced.
Have you faced prejudice in my career?
Absolutely. It's been plagued with that. That's the reality. And those who belittle that, I really don't spend a lot of time talking to. Yes, it was there. I could not get a job out of Yale Law School. You can take that for what it's worth. In the end, it was the best thing to happen. But before it was not so comfortable to swallow. There are other things which I won't get into.
Have you seen changes in law become geared more toward strict or loose construction of the Constitution at the Court?
I think it's a back and forth. I think it's wonderful that we have judges with different approaches. I wish they would agree with me more, but it's a wonderful – well, not because I think I'm right as I think they're wrong – it's a wonderful institution. It actually works. I just wish during the most difficult case in the shortest time frame of any case since I've been at the Court, or one of the most difficult, was the election case. Now you can agree or disagree. I just wish there was some way that the American people could truly have seen the Court function with this thing that had everybody else torn apart. And I still say, after almost 10 terms, I have yet to hear the first unkind word spoken. Ten terms – abortion, school prayer, establishment clause, on and on, the things that divide our society, Affirmative Action – I've yet to hear the first unkind word. Now sometimes you get exasperated. But what I came here and I told you, oh, we have food fights all the time. You'd say, oh my goodness, it's lost, it's over. And then I come here and I give you a lecture about how wonderful Madison is and how important and how thoughtful his work is, how precious it is, how he spent years studying other governments before he set down a plan to solve a very important problem and establish a country. So I give you a serious speech, a serious speech about a serious person, and then I go back and act like a kid, or better yet, a brat. It just doesn't happen. It's just too important.
As an African American on the Supreme Court, do you feel you have made the way smoother for those who follow in your footsteps, or is the entry tough?
The entry is tough, but it is smoother than it was years ago. I think that, over time, there have to be changes and opportunities. But we're raising a great nephew. It starts long before the Supreme Court, and I thank God for my grandparents who saw that better than I saw that and who would not allow me to stray when I thought having fun was more important than the discipline of work. And I thank God for the nuns, for the librarians, for the schoolteachers who helped me along the way, Holy Cross College, etc., and who saw better than I saw. I was willing to listen to my contemporaries, my grandparents would have nothing to do with that and who saw that there was something over the horizon that was more important. And what it turned out to be was this, and what I'm trying to do is to tell people, especially people who are from my circumstances, both race and class, that it is worth the trip. I don't know what's on the other side, but you gotta keep going. I used to have this image of the guy who's in the desert, he's crawling along and he wants to quit, and you see that he's crawled miles and miles and miles in this heat. And just on the other side of this mound of sand, there's an oasis that he doesn't see, and for him, it's just more desert. And what you try to say is, look, there may be an oasis for you. I'm just going to answer a few more of these. I'm not censoring, but I think that I'm taking up too much of your time. Oh my goodness, these are all very good questions. I need to come back for a class. These are tough questions. I'm gonna go to the easy ones. Oh, this is an easy one.
I've read that you were once a member of the Black Panther. How did you transition from that to your staunch Republican standpoint?
First of all, I grew up. I was not a Black Panther. We sold papers and things like that and we did the free breakfast program. But I was very much to the ideological left and, as I said, I grew up. I'm going to do two more of these.
How did you develop your deep belief in federalism?
When I was at EEOC, rather than have speechwriters, because I prefer to do most of that writing myself, rather than have speechwriters, I had political theorists around me. And we would debate every day the political theory underlying the principles in our country, or underlying the framing of the founding of our country. I didn't know where I was going to go with that. But I was tired of doing budgets and personnels everyday; there had to be more to life than that. So we would think these things through, most of them happen to be Straussians, and read. And, at the time, I was probably more Libertarian; I still have that streak that sort of runs through, it's a pretty strong streak. But what we were trying to do is think through what protects individual liberty most, and that began the interest. My interest is in what protects individual liberty. It isn't in federalism, per se, as I indicated. That should be your interest – what protects individual liberty. What is the difference between the revolution we had in the same century as the French, and totally different results? What's the difference? That's a great question, I mean, just to think it through, and that's why I'm reading more about the French Revolution. And let me just make this the final question.
What is the strangest case you ever heard?
If I answered that I'd get in trouble.
Do you think the Electoral College system should be revised?
Well, that's not a decision for me to make. That's for the citizens to make. But I think before people go making changes to something that was thoughtfully implemented, they should be as thoughtful in what the consequences will be. You should look at the absolute democracies; for the commentary on that I would encourage you to just look at Edmund Burke and what he had to say. These people knew about absolute democracies, but their concern is what? Tyranny. The concern is something like France being run by Paris as opposed to being run in a more decentralized way. But if the people in this country want to get rid of the Electoral College, whether thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, it's up to the citizens. I think they should understand why it's there, as a protection so regions don't dominate other regions, and why Madison and why Jefferson and why Washington and why Randolph and all these people who had input came to that conclusion. They should see that before they go and change these things just because they don't like a result. I can't make decisions at the Court based on outcomes. I have to make it based on judicial principles and law. And I don't think we should simply change the rules because we don't like an outcome. We should see what the purpose of that rule is, and does it add integrity to our system or does it detract away from integrity. That's a decision others would have to make, but I think we shouldn't just do as a reaction.
Finally, let me just say, that I appreciate deeply you all inviting me here. I used to drive through your campus on the interstate, sometimes at speed limit. I have a Corvette ZR1, and it needs to run. And, since I was on the interstate. But I would pass your campus, my son was at VMI, and this is an opportunity, really, to talk about the Framers and learn more about them, to read biographies, to get prepared for something like this and to talk to you all.
But to the students, I would say this: that I wish I could go back to college. One of my great regrets is that I knew so much when I was in college and was so angry and was such a Mr. Know-It-All that I missed so many opportunities to learn. As I tell my little nephew, the words that close the door to learning are 'I know.' The words that open the door to learning are, 'I don't know.' Those are two entirely different things. When I was in school, I said 'I know' and, not only that, 'I know everything.' I'm oppressed, I'm angry. It's the man this and the man that. As I got older, I found out it was a lot more complicated, and there was a lot I didn't know. So, I would gladly change places with a college student so I could do it all over again, and do it right this time. So, take advantage of this opportunity, stay positive. Your turn to lead will be here sooner than you think. And as my granddaddy told me when I went home during the Reagan Administration, 'just don't mess with my Social Security.' Thank you, all.
Rose: Thank you, Justice Thomas. That was a wonderful class, and I think you have about 1300 here who are ready to enroll. Thank you.
[Note: Justice Thomas' comments were transcribed from an audiotape recording.]