For Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a message of hope in a childhood marked with adversity came from some Irish nuns.
“I often think about them because they were the ones who insisted that we were equal,” Thomas said of his elementary school teachers. “The whole premise of neutralizing segregation in our minds … was something we heard everyday from our nuns: ‘You are inherently equal, you were created equal by God.’”
Last Thursday, Thomas shared a similar message of hope to 1,200 people in the Chiles Center. During a question and answer session led by political science professors Gary Malecha and William Curtis and five students, Thomas discussed his struggles coming of age during the Civil Rights movement and the challenges of his profession.
“This job has an amazing way of humbling you,” Thomas said. “When you sit there you realize just how small you are in the universe of things, when you’re sitting in your office alone, trying to make a decision.”
But he always brought the conversation back to a message of hope for students.
“We should say to young people to ingest positive things. We have an obligation .. to have some glimmer of hope,” Thomas said. “Don’t poison (students) with contaminated attitudes. We don’t have a right to spread that to kids.”
Widely regarded as the most conservative judge on the bench, Thomas combined humor and personal stories to inspire students.
“I think people were surprised to hear how funny he is, really interesting,” senior Cecilia Cervantes said. “He’s just another guy trying to do his job.”
Thomas’ humor ranged from self-deprecating to a satirical quip about the recent National Security Agency controversy. However, it was his support for the values of hard work over prestige that appealed to many students.
“I was lucky to have a job,”Thomas said. “Busting suds, cutting grass … I never had a job that didn’t teach me something. Don’t get caught up in the glitter.”
Emma Englund, a junior who hopes to go to law school, valued Thomas’ support of students from less affluent backgrounds over those from the Ivy Leagues.
“I liked when he talked about law clerks, he was very into having smart hardworking people,” Englund said. “People get so into, like he was saying, the glitzy positions: going to the best law school, being all flashy and outspoken, all those characteristics that don’t really matter if you don’t have the underlying (characteristics of) smart and hardworking.”
Thomas’ own background was far from glitzy. He lived in poverty in Pin Point, Ga. and came of age during the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. After quitting the seminary, he was kicked out of his home at age 19 by his grandfather.
“The road from Georgia to here was long, hard and lonely,” Thomas said. “There are times when you are left alone with just your dreams.”
However, Thomas gratefully acknowledged the people who helped him on his journey to the Supreme Court. He credits the Irish nuns as well as librarians who brought books to his farm to assist his education.
“I have to mention the ladies at the Carnegie library in Savannah who taught me what you could get from quietly reading and thinking about things,” Thomas said. “I can’t tell you how many times they said to me these important words: ‘Shhh!’ And so you learn to quiet yourself down and read things.”
Co-Director of the Garaventa Center Karen Eifler also appreciated Thomas’ message of hard work and hope.
“The implications of hope that’s grounded in working hard, finding out facts, deep reading, listening,” Eifler said. “How important it is to be open to surprises.”
Thomas addressed the difficulties he faces as a justice working under the democratic system, balancing the tensions between inviolate personal rights and majority rule.
“I think our Constitution was an effort to balance that. Think of all the loose ends that the Framers left because they couldn’t resolve it. The battles we have, the 5-4 opinions are still trying to sort out where that balance is,” Thomas said. “It’s so troublesome when people look at cases and they look at their interest in the case and all they can see is what they want and they don’t see it’s more than a specific issue, it’s that balance again.
While Thomas reflected on some of the challenges he faces as a Supreme Court Justice, controversial issues did not come up. No one asked about sexual harassment allegations brought against Thomas in 1991 by former colleague Anita Hill, or recent court cases such as the Voting Rights Act or Defense of Marriage Act.
While justices don’t share their opinions on political topics that might arise in future cases, graduate student Marit Tegelaar hoped for discussion that delved into the difficulties of his career on the Supreme Court.
“I didn’t really learn anything more from the talk than what I learned from the Internet. It was a little superficial I guess. I expected more,” Tegelaar said. “I really like his story. I would have liked to hear about all the criticism he has received and the controversy surrounding him or how that affects the enjoyment of doing his job. That way you’re still respectful, but not attacking him with difficult questions.”
Tegelaar pointed out that there is educational value in having a difficult conversation with people who may not agree on certain issues.
“I would disagree with him on a lot of things but I think it’s good to have an honest conversation and learn from it – it’s really useful to learn from it,” Tegelaar said.
When Thomas received questions that asked for his stance on issues, he was reluctant to give his opinion.
“He weighed the pros and cons without ever making a statement on where he was,” said Cervantes, who asked Thomas a question about the value of having a court created by a democratic voting system, similar to Missouri’s, rather than the current system of appointments.
Despite his reluctance to share his opinion, Cervantes valued hearing Thomas’ personal story.
“No matter where you are on the political spectrum, getting to meet someone that has that amount of intelligence and power to define the future is interesting,” Cervantes said. “He talked about how the people who find it the easiest to rule are the people who don’t have to do it. People are always going to have opinions but until you’re put in the position where you actually have to make the decision, you don’t really know what it’s like.”
Following the talk, Thomas attended UP’s annual Red Mass with Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample. The Red Mass is a Catholic tradition that prays for professionals who work with the law and administering justice.
A dinner with the law community followed the Mass, where students interested in law had the opportunity to talk with other lawyers, legislatures and judges in the Portland area.
Just as students valued their time spent with a Supreme Court Justice, Thomas valued his interactions with students.
“I always get something from being around students,” Thomas said. “They’re positive, they’re interested, they’re energetic and they’re trying to learn. Hopefully in our exchange, they got something out of it.”