It would hardly seem newsworthy that a Supreme Court justice was going to be the keynote speaker at a gathering of alumni of his elite law school.
Except when the justice is Clarence Thomas, and the elite law school is Yale.
“Strained” would not begin to describe the relationship between the New Haven, Conn., school and Thomas, Class of 1974. For years, the 63-year-old justice has avoided his alma mater, writing that it was a mistake for him to have attended the school and declining to have his portrait hung in its halls, as is the case with other notable graduates.
But Thomas returned to the school in December, teaching a class with a liberal law professor and speaking with members of the Federalist Society and the Black Law Students Association.
And in late June, just as the court is expected to release its opinion about the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care law, Thomas has agreed to be the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Yale Law School Association of Washington.
It is hard to overstate the estrangement between Thomas and Yale. In his 2007 autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” the justice was withering in his criticism of some of the professors and students he met in New Haven and said the law school’s affirmative action policies tainted his diploma.
“I’d learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much anyone denied it,” said Thomas, who was one of a handful of black students in his class.
He wrote that he considered transferring, perhaps to a Southern law school closer to his home town, Savannah, Ga.
After graduation, “as a symbol of my disillusionment, I peeled a fifteen-cent price sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale,” he wrote.
He added: “I never did change my mind about its value. Instead of hanging it on the wall of my Supreme Court office, I stored it in the basement of my Virginia home — with the sticker still on the frame.”
And Thomas felt a lack of support from the school during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Anita Hill, Class of 1980, accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him in the federal government.
Several Yale leaders before the current dean, Robert C. Post, have tried to repair relations.
The Washington Post noted in a 2004 article that former dean Anthony T. Kronman twice traveled to visit Thomas in Washington. On one occasion, Kronman brought a judicial robe embroidered with the Yale Law coat of arms as a gift.
Thomas accepted the robe but politely declined to have his portrait hung at the law school, a tradition Yale observes for its graduates who become justices.
Post was traveling and unavailable for comment, but Jan Conroy, Yale Law’s communications director, said Thomas’s December visit to Yale came about because the school learned that the justice was set to visit the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, where he volunteered as a law student.
Post invited Thomas to the law school, where he met with students, mingled with faculty members at a reception and attended a private dinner.
“He just seemed to enjoy himself immensely,” Conroy said.
When the Washington alumni contacted Post about getting Thomas to speak at their dinner, Conroy said, Post called Thomas and the justice agreed.
The other Yalies on the court — Samuel A. Alito Jr., Class of ’75, and Sonia Sotomayor, Class of 1979 — have returned to the school since joining the court.
Still unresolved, Conroy said, is the question of Thomas’s portrait. “We’d, of course, be delighted,” she said.
Neither Alito nor Sotomayor have portraits hung either.
Conroy said the law school is running a little behind on the portrait tradition.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” she said.