ORANGE – Clarence Thomas told an overflow crowd at Chapman University Monday evening that he never wanted to become a Supreme Court justice, or even a judge.Attorney Tim Sandefur was there, and offers these observations:
"There's not much that entices about the job," Thomas said, answering questions from the public that provided a rare glimpse of the man behind the office. "There's no money in it, no privacy, no big houses, and from an ego standpoint, it does nothing for me."
Thomas, 59, said the position is satisfying because he feels he's serving the public, and he's honored by it, "but I wouldn't say I like it."
"I like sports," Thomas said. "I like to drive a motor home."
Speaking to more than 1,000 people on the last leg of his tour to promote his book "My Grandfather's Son: a Memoir," published by HarperCollins in October, Thomas said he wrote the book as a tribute to his grandparents, who raised him.
His book describes his life as a child in segregated Georgia whose mother worked as a maid and whose father had abandoned the family.
He went to live with his grandparents and later considered becoming a Catholic priest, but ultimately graduated from Yale Law School and after bitterly contested Senate confirmation hearings earned a place on the nation's high court.
The book includes Thomas' first personal account of the impact on his life of the Senate hearings, in which his former aide Anita Hill testified that he had sexually harassed her.
The justice said he wanted to emphasize a message of hope in his book, to show how people can rise above their circumstances through work and determination. He added that he never considered himself "particularly talented," nor his life unusual.
Immigrants have been attracted to the book, he said, because they relate to the theme of overcoming adversity.
After a short, self-deprecating speech, Thomas spent half an hour responding to written questions from the audience, and later signed copies of his book.
Asked how his Roman Catholic faith impacted his job, Thomas said he did not let his religion influence his decisions on the court. He also said he was determined "not to be cajoled or enticed into doing wrong things" by flattery.
Some of his cases involve hard decisions that "pull at you as human beings," Thomas said. "Only people who don't feel pulled are people with no authority and those whose minds are already made up."
Thomas, whose visit was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., drew standing ovations from the impressed crowd. When he first came up to the podium, to his apparent astonishment, a woman rose from the crowd and burst into an impassioned chorus of "You're Marvelous."
Thomas said sometimes he will just sit and read the Constitution to admire it as a document.
"Many people who can read the warranty of an iPhone have never read the Constitution of the United States," Thomas said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Yesterday’s event with Justice Clarence Thomas went really well; it was full of the electricity of admiration and joy that Justice Thomas seems to inspire in people, and I was very privileged to attend the VIP reception beforehand and get a chance to talk briefly with the Justice and meet up with some old friends.
The talk itself was attended by an overflow crowd—the Heritage Foundation even had to set up two overflow rooms for people to watch the talk on closed circuit television (and the line for the book signing afterwards was an hour long). I was lucky enough to get into the second row center, where I could see very well.
The show began with a brief and powerful introduction by Professor Don Booth that really set the tone for the evening. “I’ve been teaching here for 45 years,” he began. “And before that I was a student. And let me tell you. Forty eight years, two months, and one day ago [I don’t remember this exactly, but he did] I was sitting right over there—” here he pointed to the right side of the audience. “And up here on stage was Martin Luther King.”*
The audience instantly fell silent.
“And even then, he was urging us to judge people by the content of their character. Well, Dr. King, we’ve done that. And that’s why we’re here tonight.” The audience burst into loud applause.
Several other introductions were made, including Gene Meyer of the Federalist Society, Ed Meese, and John Eastman, who all sat alongside Thomas on the stage, and then the Justice came up to speak. Before he could get a word out, a woman in the audience called out to him. “Your honor! Your honor!”
Thomas stopped. “Yes?” he asked, simply.
The woman then began to sing, much to the shock and distaste of the audience at first, which would not have been surprised had there been hecklers to disrupt the event. But her singing wasn’t half bad. In fact, after a while, we noticed it was pretty good, and she was singing “You are too marvelous for words.” The audience just looked at one another, while Thomas, silent, stared at the woman, with a slowly growing smile. When she was done, we all couldn’t help ourselves; we burst into applause again.
“Well,” said Thomas, “I’m glad I have the pigmentation I do, because otherwise you would all see me blushing!”
Eastman, meanwhile, was blushing so hard he was hardly distinguishable from the scarlet curtain behind him.
Thomas then started into his brief talk, covering his life and his optimism and explaining why he wrote the book. Thomas has never been an electrifying speaker when reading from a prepared script, but he seems to know this, so he kept his prepared remarks quite brief, and moved on to the questions from the audience. Of these, a few stood out. When asked about how his religious faith affects his performance as a judge, he explained that of course it provides him with strength to worry about his work instead of public acclaim, but he then wound up with, “You know, a lot of the same people who worry that my religious views will dictate my judging are the same people who want me to use the color of my skin to dictate my judging.” That got a loud round of applause (as did virtually everything he said).
One person asked who his favorite authors are and his favorite books. Richard Wright, he said, of course, and Ralph Ellison—not a surprise to longtime admirers of Thomas—but he also likes Louis L’Amour novels. “And I had an Ayn Rand phase, and I still like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, sorry John...” (turning to Eastman). At this point, I felt the need to represent, so I cheered loudly, bringing another blush to Eastman’s face. (John Eastman is the easiest blushing man who ever lived.) “And I got about 90 percent of the way through Human Action before I gave up,” Thomas continued. “But Mises has a really good short book called Socialism, which is great.”
Asked if he enjoys judging, he answered, “I enjoy sports. I enjoy driving my motor home. Judging is what I do. I get a certain satisfaction from a job well done, but I don’t get up in the morning, ‘Oh boy, I hope we get a death case today!’”
One person asked why he doesn’t ask questions from the bench. A common question, Thomas answered as usual that he doesn’t think questions are really relevant. “This isn’t Perry Mason, you know. All the issues are in the briefs. When I started on the Court, it was a very quiet Court. And Harry Blackmun was very quiet. And when the Court started to ask more questions in his later years, Harry put his arms around me and said, ‘It’s just you and me now, Clarence.’ So nowadays I put my arms around myself and say, ‘It’s just me, Clarence.’”
He was asked what advice he would give high school students. He answered by remembering a sign on the desk of a friend that said “When you don’t know your way, it’s best to ask someone who’s coming back what it was like.” That’s good advice, because your elders are people who know what that road is like. “We’ve all been 17. None of you have been 59. And the second thing I would say is, it’s not all about you!”
I won’t go on too much in this vein, since I believe the Heritage Foundation will be posting video of the event on their website soon. Suffice to say it was a great time, and thanks to John Eastman particularly for helping to organize it and for getting me into the VIP Reception. It was a real blast.
*-All these quotes, of course, are from memory, so they aren't exact.