Thursday, December 13, 2007

Justice Thomas in Florida

Justice Thomas made a speech in Florida recently, and several newspapers covered the event. Here's a story from the Palm Beach Post, which also has a video:
When Clarence Thomas grew up in rural 1950s Georgia, he spent a lot of time along U.S. 17, watching cars with out-of-state tags pass through on their way to Florida.

"We wondered what they were doing down here," he recalled today, on a road trip of his own, to pitch his memoir, "My Grandfather's Son."

He was in his 30s before he made it to Florida, leaving Georgia first for the Northeast, to attend Holy Cross and Yale Law School and ultimately making his way through trials and tribulations to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now 59, after 16 years on the high court, Thomas described his journey from poverty in the segregated South as a tale of hope. "Just because it starts off badly, it doesn't have to end that way," he said. He referred to himself as "an ordinary person to whom extraordinary things have happened."

Speaking to a responsive, sellout crowd of more than 700 people, at a luncheon sponsored by the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County Bar Association, he brushed aside media characterizations of himself as "the angriest justice," as the New York Times recently called him.

"I do not intend to answer articles I didn't read and most of which I consider extremely irrelevant," he said.

"I can't afford to be angry," he added several minutes later. "When you're struggling, you can't afford to carry that millstone of anger with you. ÖYou gotta let it go. ÖI say that to younger kids who have issues with their parents: let it go."

Questions from the audience covered a range of issues. As for being considered an anomaly as a black conservative, he said people shouldn't peg ideology to skin color. Where he grew up, people were "traditional" and that's how he views his spot on the political spectrum, he said.

Asked how he can oppose affirmative action programs when he benefited from them in college admissions, he said people should pay more attention to the fact he was always an honor student, one who outperformed almost every other student at Holy Cross and Yale.

Among his other responses:

• Cameras in the courtroom: He expressed concern that they would detract from the process. "The dynamics of the room change when a camera shows up," he said;

• Quiet justice: Asked why he seldom comments or questions from the bench as his colleagues do, he said that historically members of the court did not engage in "this sort of chattering," especially since much of a case has already been hashed out at the appellate level. "The real question should be, 'Why the sudden change?'" he said;

• Racist system: Asked whether the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison points to a racist system, he said that would be too simplistic an analysis and that more attention should be paid to root causes, from dropout rates to drugs and deterioration of family;

• Qualities of an effective jurist: The baseline is preparation and hard work, but the ability to make a decision is a key, he said. "You cannot have an indecisive judge. You need people who have courage to stand up for the right thing."

• How will history judge him? Whatever historians write about you, he said, "You're not going to be here to read it."
From the Palm Beach Daily News, which covers audience questions as well:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir (Harper) as a tribute to his grandparents, who, he said, instilled in him good values and a strong work ethic.

He also wrote the book to illustrate that you can overcome bad circumstances — such as growing up in 1950s Georgia amid poverty and segregation.

"It is a universal story of facing difficulties, challenges, enduring them and, hopefully, trying to overcome them," Thomas said. "Is there anybody in this room who's ever had a challenge and said, 'I can't face it?' We've all been there. And there's something inside of us which says 'I can make it.'

"That's what this book is about — that maybe there's a ray of sunlight above these clouds and maybe there'll be another day better than today."

Thomas received a standing ovation upon being introduced to the sold-out crowd of 720 at the luncheon meeting, which was co-sponsored by The Forum Club of the Palm Beaches and the Palm Beach County Bar Association. The event was held at the Kravis Center's Cohen Pavilion.

At age 7, Thomas and his 6-year-old brother were sent to live with his grandparents after his parents divorced and his young mother struggled to raise three children on $10 a week.

Thomas eventually graduated cum laude from Holy Cross College and went on to earn his law degree from Yale Law School.

"The initial writing was to, in so many ways, honor these people," Thomas said. "To give an accurate account of a life, my life, their lives, of the life they gave me. . . . I owed those two wonderful people to let the world know what they had really done. But I also owed people who are alive now, young kids, an explanation of what it took and why it's so important to continue doing well.

"I simply wanted others to see that through difficulties and challenges and criticism and negativism, there's a reason to hope," Thomas said. "It didn't look like there was any reason, but in retrospect there was a reason to hope."

Thomas worked on the book with his wife, Virginia.

"We hoped, Virginia and I, that this book would break through the noise in Washington, that din of ceaseless cynicism and that din of never-ending negativism that we have all too much of in our society," Thomas said. "It is a numbing kind of attitude in the society now. It is a cancer of the spirit, where there's a constant barrage of negativism and cynicism.

"The book is merely to provide some hope to those who would like hope and to provide accuracy about the life of an ordinary person to whom extraordinary things happened and for whom he's grateful to people like his grandparents who played such a major role in making that happen."


Questions posed by audience members to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Forum Club Wednesday:

Q: As a person of color growing up during the 1950s, your conservative beliefs seem to be atypical. How did you get your conservative beliefs?

A: I think it's not atypical and that's the point of the book. We are making very general assumptions about people based on the color of their skin. I don't know anything about your views and I will draw no conclusions about what your thoughts are based on the color of your skin. That is precisely what we thought was wrong with the treatment of blacks back in the '60s and '50s. One of the great things about education is it breaks down these stereotypes and prejudices. ... I was raised in south Georgia. And anyone who was raised in south Georgia at that time knows it wasn't called conservatism back then. It was called tradition.

Q: You have expressed opposition to laws that address race-based discrimination in school admissions. Is it your belief you were given unfair advantage when you were admitted to law school?

A: It's in the book and I'm going to leave it there because I'm tired of answering it. That's one more reason that, as a person, I find these programs offensive. I was always an honors student and the one question I'm rarely asked is, 'How is it that coming from where you are, you were consistently throughout your life an honors student and what is it about your life that allowed you to do better than most of your classmates at Yale or better than virtually all of your classmates at Holy Cross?' That is a question that I feel would be more helpful to these young people who are struggling against the odds.

Q: What do you think about broadcasting oral arguments for the Supreme Court?

A: I don't see how it helps our decision-making process. If it's not useful in deciding cases, I don't think we should do it. ... I'm not opposed to it because you don't want people to see what you're doing. There's nothing secret going on, but simply remember what we're there to do.

Q: Meeting you is very different than how the media has portrayed you. Why is there a difference in your persona versus your public persona?

A: I think the question isn't for me. I think the question is for the people who did the distorting. What is their interest in distorting? I know who I am ... and yet people for their own reasons have been hell-bent on creating an image that has nothing to do with me. I might disagree with you on three or four things. But why would you report, for example, that I'm angry, when I'm not angry with anybody? And if I were angry, you would see me angry. But that's just not been the case. Or some say I'm bitter. But what kind of person does it take to write an article like that? That sounds like a bitter, angry person to me.

Q: What qualities make an effective jurist?

A: Preparation, conscientiousness, hard work and some organization, and you also need the ability to actually decide things. You can't have an indecisive judge. . . In the end, you need people who have courage to stand up for the right thing. ... I don't think it's our job to be popular. It's our job to be right.
From the Sun-Sentinel:

WEST PALM BEACH - Recalling his own experiences at televised congressional hearings, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Wednesday that cameras should not be allowed in the nation's highest court.

Stopping in South Florida on a nationwide book tour, Thomas also touched on race in America, judicial pay and his quiet presence on the bench during a question-and-answer session with a crowd of more than 700 at the Kravis Center.

Asked about broadcasting Supreme Court hearings, Thomas, a 16-year court veteran, noted he's testified more than 60 times before congressional committees, where cameras are allowed. Currently, only audio feeds record Supreme Court oral arguments.

"The dynamics of the room change considerably when cameras show up, and they don't change for the better," Thomas said. "I'm concerned it would result in some deterioration of what we do."

Thomas added there's "nothing secret going on" during arguments, but the test for allowing TV cameras should be whether it improves the way the high court conducts its business. "If it doesn't make our processes better, I'm very reluctant to do it," he said. "I simply don't see it improving on the way we do our job."

Thomas, 59, is promoting his new memoir, My Grandfather's Son. Thomas put in frequent plugs for the book, and 300 pre-signed copies were on sale in the lobby for $26.95 each. Event sponsors were the Forum Club and the Palm Beach County Bar Association.

The justice, known as a staunch conservative on the court, tackled some thorny issues during his speaking appearance, including race in America. Asked about high incarceration rates for blacks, Thomas responded that it's an "ostrich-like" approach to blame racism. He said a high dropout rate and a falling marriage rate are factors that don't often get considered because people are afraid of "blaming the victim."

"Let's go back to some of the causes of some of these things, or at least talk about it — you may not solve it," said Thomas, the only black Supreme Court justice. "I don't think we honestly discuss issues of race today."

Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito on Monday dissented from a majority opinion that gave judges more discretion in giving shorter sentences to people convicted of crack cocaine crimes. The decision had a strong racial dimension because the vast majority of crack offenders are black.

The suit-and-tie crowd at Wednesday's lunch warmly applauded Thomas, but some posed pointed questions, too. One asked Thomas whether, given his opposition to affirmative-action policies, he received an "unfair advantage" in his collegiate career at College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School.

"I'm tired of answering that," Thomas shot back. "One question I've never been asked is ... How was it coming from where you came from [in rural southern Georgia], how were you consistently an honor student?"

Thomas defended his low-key approach to oral arguments. He's famously silent from the bench, as the other eight justices often pepper attorneys with questions during 30-minute oral argument allotments.

"This sort of chattering is all new," he said. "For 200 years, we were able to do it without all these questions ...Why the sudden change? I don't think all those questions are necessary. It's not Perry Mason."

On judicial pay, Thomas said his $195,000 salary is OK for his family, but that salaries for judges and justices that don't compare with private practice are "going to kill off our judiciary." He said judges often make one-tenth what they could earn at law firms.
Finally, from the Associated Press:
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Wednesday that calling the American justice system racist oversimplifies a multifaceted problem, which involves the erosion of the American family, longer sentences and soaring high school dropout rates.

"To simply reduce it all to race is I think to blame reality," Thomas told a group of local leaders, lawyers and high school students.

Thomas, the only black Supreme Court justice, and Justice Samuel Alito on Monday dissented from a majority opinion that gave judges more discretion in giving shorter sentences to people convicted of crack cocaine crimes. The decision had a strong racial dimension because the vast majority of crack offenders are black.

In a broad-ranging question-and-answer session, Thomas also said Wednesday that television cameras should stay out of the Supreme Court's oral arguments and federal judges need higher salaries.

Thomas said cameras could taint the argument process.

"I don't see where it helps," he said. "The dynamics don't change for the better. And I'm concerned that it would actually result in some deterioration of what we do."

Asked why he is generally so quiet on the bench, Thomas said it is not his job to debate, but simply to listen.

"This sort of chattering is all new," he said. "I don't think all those questions are necessary. ... The meat of the case is in the briefs."

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