Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Justice Clarence Thomas in Chicago

An article about a speech there:
Thomas' life story, philosophy win admirers

October 23, 2007

Beautiful early fall weather and a few days off from work promised the opportunity to do some outdoor chores around the house and enjoy what in most years is Chicago's best season. But that Friday morning in September 1991, I made the mistake of turning on the television and for the next several days didn't stray far from it as I, like the rest of the nation, was transfixed by the extraordinary Senate hearings over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The anguish over the charges of sexual harassment alleged by Anita Hill make for painful reading in My Grandfather's Son, the new book Thomas wrote telling the story of his rise from poverty in Georgia to a seat on the nation's highest court. Reading about those tortured days recalls just how desperate liberal interests in Washington were to block the appointment of a conservative African American to the court. People who liked to think of themselves as champions of civil rights had drudged up the worst Jim Crow stereotype of a sexually menacing black man to try to derail Thomas' nomination.

Juan Williams, now an NPR commentator but in 1991 a columnist for the Washington Post, called it "indiscriminate, mean-spirited mudslinging supported by the so-called champions of fairness." Opinion polls in the days after the hearings showed that the public had seen through it and supported President George H.W. Bush's nomination of Thomas.

Neither his contentious confirmation hearing specifically nor Hill's name came up Sunday night when 960 people turned out in Chicago to hear Thomas talk about his book and answer questions from the audience in a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.

In a reference to the many challenges he faced in life that made him stronger, Thomas said he had been "very fortunate to have had misfortune in my life." The 59-year-old jurist went on to deplore the low level of civil discourse in this country and said it doesn't have to be that way. "For all the flaws we might have at the court, at least we're civil."

The conservative Heritage crowd greeted him warmly and clearly admired him. His remarks and answers to their questions about his life and judicial philosophy demonstrated why.

His discussions of legal issues drew applause time and again, like when he declared that the job of a Supreme Court justice was to rule "on what the law is -- not what it ought to be."

His observations on the tendency of some of his colleagues on the high court to look to legal rulings in other countries in forming opinions on American law were cutting. "How do you decide which country to reach out to?" he asked. Noting that justices don't look to China or Zimbabwe, Thomas said, "You reach out to countries that support your point of view." He called it "cherry picking other countries' jurisprudence to form ours."

One person in the audience noted that he had a reputation for not asking questions during oral arguments before the court. "I ask all the questions that need to be asked," Thomas responded. Saying most opinions are based on voluminous written briefs, he added, "There is no mystery, this is not Perry Mason" where questioning will reveal a culprit. He suggested that other justices ask too many questions, cutting into the precious 30 minutes allotted the attorneys for oral arguments.

Perhaps most revealing about Thomas the man were his comments about two things he requires of the clerks who work for him.

He has them watch "The Fountainhead," the movie based on Ayn Rand's novel celebrating uncompromising individualism. The message: Just because a million people say you're wrong doesn't mean you are wrong.

And each year he takes his clerks on a trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg where thousands of soldiers fell in days and Abraham Lincoln found the words to explain what those men died for. Thomas described the purpose of this annual outing: "It's left to us to give value to the sacrifice of all who died for this country."

Clarence Thomas was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice 16 years ago today.

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