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Culling the Reputable, Reliable, Right-Leaning

For 'Family' of Clerks, Thomas Weighs Politics, Loyalty and, Sometimes, Hard-Luck History

By Michael A. Fletcher and Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page A11

Clarence Thomas was speaking to students at Ashland University, an hour south of Cleveland, when he was hit by a question that often follows him: How much of your own work do you do?

The student questioner went on to observe that law clerks are said to have a lot of power. "I think the law clerks are in charge of everything," Thomas retorted. "In fact, I got an allowance from them before I came here."


Clarence Thomas is known for forging closer bonds with law clerks than most justices. Here, he talks with three of his clerks in his chambers in 2002. (David Hume Kennerly -- Getty Images)

_____Style of a Justice_____
Photo Gallery: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has a low profile by Washington standards, but is far more engaged than he lets on.
_____Record of a Justice_____
Interactive Chart: An analysis of Thomas's record compared to other Supreme Court justices.
A Justice's Private File
Excerpts: Thomas's Legal Writings
_____More From The Post_____
Jurist Embraces Image As a Hard-Line Holdout (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Jurist Mum Come Oral Arguments (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
In Sharp Divide on Judicial Partisanship, Thomas Is Exhibit A (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
Narrowly Defined Image Belies Jurist's Quiet Clout (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
Thomas's Across-the-Aisle Aid Puzzles Even the Beneficiaries (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
Yale Law Lacks Portrait -- And Thomas's Goodwill (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
Thomas v. Blackmun (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2004)
About This Series

This series of articles about Justice Clarence Thomas is the result of more than two years of reporting by Washington Post staff writers Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher. The two reporters published a Post magazine article about Thomas in August 2002. Their book on Thomas is scheduled to be published next year by Doubleday.

He went on to offer a serious discussion about his relationship with his clerks.

"Mine are like family," he said, adding, "You rarely see other members of the court, but you see your law clerks every day."

He starts each term in October surrounded by four law clerks who stay with him until the court adjourns. Explaining that law clerks have to "hit the ground running," Thomas, like all justices, usually selects from the pool of applicants who have clerked at the federal appellate level.

Thomas's clerks are culled from the top ranks of law school graduates and are typically conservative. Most justices tend to hire like-minded clerks, though Antonin Scalia is known for bringing in an ideological opposite to sharpen the discussions in his chambers.

"I'm not going to hire clerks who have profound disagreements with me," Thomas said several years ago during an appearance in Dallas. "That is a waste of my time. Someone said that is like trying to train a pig. It's a waste of your time, and it aggravates the pig."

Trustworthiness also is high on Thomas's list. He once told students that you can't have clerks "who are plain ol' dishonest, who are keeping notes, who plan to leak things, who are talking to people about it. I don't talk to my wife about these things, and she's my best friend."

Thomas relies heavily for clerk recommendations on friends and ideological soul mates among appeals court judges. Twenty-three of the 56 law clerks Thomas has hired at the Supreme Court previously clerked for one of two federal appeals court judges, Laurence H. Silberman and J. Michael Luttig, both highly respected conservatives who stood by Thomas during his confirmation.

Luttig said in an interview that his own judicial philosophy likely "has some relevance" to Thomas's selection of many of his clerks. More crucial, he said, are the track records of his clerks who previously worked at the high court and his friendship with Thomas, which allows for easy, candid assessment of candidates.

"I would like to think when a clerk comes from me to him, there is a dependability and a reliability factor," Luttig said. "There is a personality screen and a legal talent screen that is comforting."

Thomas also is partial to clerks who have overcome personal adversity. Steven Bradbury, who clerked for Thomas during the 1992-93 term, suffered the death of his father before he was a year old. Raised by his mother in Portland, Ore., he was the first in his family to go to college.

"That was a story that really resonated with the justice," said Bradbury, now a Justice Department lawyer. Bradbury's mother, a lifelong Democrat, met Thomas while visiting her son during his clerkship. Bradbury worried that his mother would be wary of his boss.

As it turned out, he should not have been concerned. Upon meeting Thomas, his mother immediately threw her arms around him. And after they chatted, "she just had this empathy for him," Bradbury said.


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