Monday, September 24, 2007

Omaha Chamber of Commerce Speech

Thomas Looks Back on Court

By Julia McCord

* * * It goes without saying that those 10 years have been tumultuous, Thomas on Monday told the annual meeting of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

Thomas said his arrival on the court in 1991 was noteworthy for the "sheer brutality" of his confirmation hearings.

* * *

Thomas said he also has been subjected to a continuing and "quite successful" campaign to alienate him from his race - "to what end, I have no clue."

Once on the court, however, he said, those controversies became mere distractions. "There was too much work to be done," he said.

Adjusting to life on the nation's highest court wasn't easy. Thomas, now 53, was warned that it would take him about five years.

"In retrospect," he said Monday, "that's about right."

The new justice had to get used to the court's intense workload and living in the public eye. He also had to get used to the fact that "each undertaking at the court can change our country," he said.

* * *

"After 10 years, it's become a way of life," he said. "More accurately, perhaps, it's become a vocation. I am blessed to have the opportunity to be there and the opportunity to do the job."

Thomas painted a picture of the inner workings of the Supreme Court that is contrary to popular opinion. He said he wished people knew more about the court because "I think you would have more confidence in your country."

The justices meet alone, in a room with no recording devices, to consider the cases before them. All viewpoints are heard and debated, he said.

Thomas said he has yet to hear an unkind word from any of the justices. Even if they become exasperated with one another, he said, they are always respectful.

"How many of you could debate the issues we have to debate ... and never raise a voice or call a name?" he asked.

Since there are few limits on the justices' authority, he said, they must exercise discipline and self-restraint in deciding the number and types of cases they consider.

"We are not gods," he said. "We have no authority to decide the imponderable."

* * *

Justices must be impartial, Thomas continued. While it is praiseworthy to argue one's case or fight for a position, he said, Supreme Court justices have an obligation not to be partisan or take a preconceived position.

No one, he said, would accept the view that as a Catholic he should be influenced by the pope or favor a Catholic over a Protestant or a Christian over a Jew.

Some people have assumed that Thomas' race should trump his oath to be impartial, "but you must be colorblind," he said.

The tone of the criticism directed against him on this issue teaches people "that there is a very high price to pay for thinking for yourself," he said.

"That, my friends, is not good, as we all know."

Thomas, who is married to the former Virginia Lamp of Omaha, spoke to more than 1,100 people at the Holiday Convention Centre.

During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Thomas said he had not seen the television sitcom "First Monday" about the Supreme Court. But he said he doesn't know how anyone could do an accurate portrayal since no one is privy to the justices' deliberations. Even if they were, he said, "it would be more exciting to watch paint dry."

When asked about the court's controversial decision that decided the 2000 presidential election, he said there are constitutional provisions that must be met. He said had there been more time, the opinion might have been different.

"But I will say this: The next time, solve your problems at the polls."

Thomas said he, his wife and the 10-year-old great-grandnephew they are rearing travel the nation's highways in a motor home when time permits. He likes the anonymity.

Like truckers, Thomas said, he gets out of his vehicle, hitches up his pants, kicks the tires and gets out his fuel gloves.

* * *

Thomas told the crowd Monday that when he was on the road in southern Georgia shortly after the 2000 election and paying his bill at a truck stop, a man said, "Anybody told you that you look like Clarence Thomas?"

When Thomas said yes, the man replied: "I bet it happens all the time."

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