Monday, April 23, Noon ET

Books: "Supreme Discomfort"

Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Authors and Washington Post Reporters
Monday, April 23, 2007; 12:00 PM

"Justice Clarence Thomas is the Supreme Court's most reclusive member, which is saying something. Deeply distrustful of the media, the justice also almost never speaks from the bench. As a powerful official who remains opaque to the public, he is a prime candidate for a careful, fair-minded biography," writes Kenji Yoshino, professor at Yale Law School, in Book World.

Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post reporters and authors of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas," will be online Monday, April 23, at Noon ET to discuss their biography of the Supreme Court's most controversial justice.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


Washington, D.C.: Good article in this weekend'a Post. What was the most revealing piece of information that you got, while researching this book? Justice Thomas's Life A Tangle of Poverty, Privilege and Race ( Post, April 22)

Kevin Merida: First, let me say welcome to everyone. This was a fascinating exercise for me and Michael. We believe that there are many sides to Justice Thomas, many complexities to his life story. I think for me, one of the great revelations in researching this book was just how many people, and a wide variety of people, he entertains in his chambers for conversation. Often people would drop by, say a court employee bringing his parents and they'd find themselves in Justice Thomas's chambers for hours. Many times these conversations seem to have a cathartic quality for him. He will discuss his upbringing, the slights from his childhood, pull out high school yearbooks, on one occasion imitate the dance steps of Motown's Temptations with the father of a protege. We talked to a number of people who had visited him, and those interviews really unlocked him for us.


Michael A. Fletcher: Hello everyone, thanks for joining us. Let's get started.


St. Paul, Minn.: The Post for this program states that Justice Thomas rarely speaks from the bench. His reticence often extends to his writings, often his dissents are a mere paragraph or two. How much precedence is there for this dearth of writing from a sitting Justice?

Michael A. Fletcher: Thomas actually does his fair share of writing from the bench.The short opinions you refer to often are in dissents or concurrences on cases that raise issues where his views are already known and not about to change. Also, he often pens passionate opinions on issues that he is passionate about. Among them are school integration and affirmative action in higher education (in the 2003 Michigan case he memorably (and some say misleadingly) quoted Frederick Douglass). Thomas also has gone on in some of these minority opinions to make his case for why he feels past court precedents--sometimes landmark precedents--have strayed from the path charted by the Constitution.


Washington, D.C.: When writing the book, how many people would NOT speak to you about Thomas?

Kevin Merida: As we write in our author's note, there were certainly some who didn't speak to us--a number of his colleagues on the court, for instance, and some others. But we were most struck by just how many people did cooperate with us, including Justice Scalia, Thomas's mother and sister, who granted multiple interviews, Thomas's childhood friends, and many others who were close to Thomas now and during key moments in his life.


Fairfax County, Va.: I am concerned and upset about your reporting on the teenager Clarence Thomas has brought up. Is he old enough to handle suddenly being put in the public spotlight and having his parents' deeds and misdeeds brought to light? I thought the Clintons had made a lasting change through their handling of Chelsea's situation while she was a minor. Why did he make up so much of the excerpt in The Post and why did you report about him (his preference in reading, his school, etc.) at all? I am happy to read about this mysterious Justice but would have also been just as happy to wait a few years til this young man was a grown-up.

Kevin Merida: Thanks for your question, Fairfax. We tried to be very careful in what we included specifically about Thomas's great nephew. There really is not a great amount of detail in our Sunday excerpt about young Mark's life. Thomas himself has talked about Mark in considerably more detail in public speeches. He is very proud of the young man, and his decision to try to give Mark what his grandfather had given him and the circumstances of how that came about, is an important part of Thomas's biography. As clerks and friends told us, it is something that reenergized Thomas and really has changed his life.


Baltimore: Justice Thomas's confirmation hearings: In your book, where do you come down on the question of Thomas vs. Hill? Was it an attempt to smear a good man, a courageous action on the part of a young woman, or ultimately an unknowable he said/she said situation?

Kevin Merida: I think what happened between Thomas and Hill is ultimately unknowable. Only the two of them know for sure what transpired. What IS clear is that one of them lied, period. There was no wiggle room left in either of their stories. We try to dissect what happened and add some new information and context to help readers untangle it for themselves.


Mt. Rainier, Md.: I'm a PG Co. elementary school teacher. Justice Thomas spoke to my 4th grade students several years ago, and it was not a success. He seemed uncomfortable around children, and, among other things, explained that he never spoke in court because, when he was their age, other kids made fun of his comments. But the man is a Supreme Court Justice! So far we have not had him back.

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting. Justice Thomas often is a very effective speaker, even if he sometimes leaves his audiences a bit puzzled. He has a way of conveying humility when he talks and he has the kind of stump speech that one would not expect from a Supreme Court justice. Rarely does he give talks on subject such as: "Application of the Commerce Clause in 21st Century America." He could, and he does write about that issue in his opinions. But instead, he often uses his public appearances to talk about his own life, his own struggles, and for some audiences that can be inspiring. But for others it is a downer. In many of his graduation speeches, for example, Justice Thomas talks about the hard time he had getting a job coming out of Yale Law School. Even now that he stands at the top of the proverbial legal heap, he tells groups that he keeps a stack of job rejection letters in his home. I think his point is to try to connect with people that he is a regular guy who has had struggles like everyone else but overcame them. His famous silence from the bench is grew from those struggles. I don't know what he told your class, but he has given various reasons for his silence in the past. He says advocates should have their say before the court and that justices should refrain from interrupting them. He also has suggested that justices who ask a lot of questions are often grandstanding. But he also has said that his silence is a holdover from his days as a young man who spoke in a "Geechee" dialect common to his coastal Georgia home. He said he learned to be ashamed of how he talked when he was a teenager. He says a teacher at his high school (a Catholic minor seminary in Savannah) called him out on the way he talked and that Thomas worked hard to overcome his dialect. It was effective: Thomas now speaks in a clear, commanding baritone. But he said in those days he developed a habit for listening that was never broken.


Philadelphia: I found it interesting how relatives of Justice Thomas said they wouldn't think of contacting Justice Thomas for assistance over a relative's legal troubles. From one perspective, we cringe when we see justice bent for a relative. Yet, from another perspective, it makes Justice Thomas appear cold and distant from his roots. What is your take on this?

Kevin Merida: Justice Thomas has always had a complicated relationship with his sister. They both started in Pin Point, but he was the one who went to Savannah to live with his grandfather after the family house burned down and his sister stayed behind with aging relatives. Their lives diverged. His sister, Emma, had children early. She picked crabs to earn money and for a time was on welfare. Thomas went throught the Catholic school system and for a time was preparing to be a priest. His grandfather and grandmother helped him to fulfill his potential. Emma, who never had as much ambition as her brother, has stayed in Pin Point and works as a cook. She is not bitter about her brother, she just does not view life the way he does. They are really in two different worlds, and when her son got caught up in a drug sting in Pin Point, she didn't believe her brother really wanted to be bothered. In fact, she thinks her brother's name and reputation made it more difficult for her son to get leniency in sentence, which was 30 years.


Windsor Mill, Md.: If Thomas had talked to you during the course of researching the book, what would you have asked him? If he were willing to talk to you today, would you ask him something different? And how does a subject's unwillingness to cooperate affect how you treat him in the book? Do you approach it with the same attitude you would, had he cooperated?

Michael A. Fletcher: Great questions. One issue we would have loved to explore with Justice Thomas was his estrangement from large elements of the African American community. We are curious about how the justice views that, how the breach widened the way it did, and whether he ever sees it being bridged. Justice Thomas is arguably the most powerful African Americans in public life, but yet he is not celebrated in much of the African American community. In some quarters, he is actually looked down upon. But it is not as if he feels no connection to the black community. He does many quiet things, including speaking to school groups and mentoring young people, many of whom are black. Of course, we would also have liked to discuss the Anita Hill situation with him, if only to learn more about the texture of their relationship. Similarly, we're curious about his relationship with the right. In light of the Imus controversy, for example, I'd be curious about what he thinks of his buddy Rush Limbaugh's radio show. The fact that he didn't talk caused us to work harder to interview people around him, people who meet in chambers with him or otherwise are privvy to his thoughts. We also relied a lot on his large catalog of speeches. I like to think that the fact that he didn't talk did not change our view of him. I have to say, that every time we were able to approach Justice Thomas in public he was unfailingly polite, even as he was unmoveable on the subject of doing an interview.


New York, N.Y.: Thanks for taking questions. I recently heard on a radio interview (I think one or both of you were on) that Clarence Thomas does not really enjoy being a Supreme Court justice, but he will never resign because that would satisfy his critics. Did I hear correctly?

Michael A. Fletcher: Justice Thomas has indicated to some people who have talked to him that he is not that enamored of the job. Surprised, that person pursued the subject with him, and Thomas said he would perhaps prefer to do something like his grandfather did--run a small business. That is another of the things we would have asked him about had the justice granted us an interview. But he has never invoked the prospect of stepping down, at least to our knowledge. In his defiant moments, Thomas has said that he plans to stay on the court for a long time--if only to confound his critics.


Bethesda, Md.: Other biographies have been written about Clarence Thomas. What unique perspective do you two bring to the table. And how do your experiences as black men affect your perspective?

Kevin Merida: I think growing up in black communities and having thought a lot about the expectations high achieving African Americans face informed our work quite a bit. We think Justice Thomas's racial identity is essential to understanding him--it informs his work on the court, his views of the world and his relationships with others. And we explore the various sides of that identity more than other biographies to date.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the chat. I can't wait to read the book.

I'm wondering to what extent, if at all, did Justice Thomas cooperate with you in the writing of this book?

How open were his friends and associates to being interviewed?

Thank you very much.

Kevin Merida: Justice Thomas did not cooperate with this book, but as stated previously many of his close friends did, including former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson.


New Bedford, Mass.: From what I have read so far, sounds like you guys did a masterful job! Congratulations!! Essence magazine called your book an expose. Is that a fair assessment? What was your initial intent in writng this book and did that change during the course of writing. Thanks!

Kevin Merida: Thank you for the kind words. I would not call our book an expose, but we're happy to have been featured in Essence. Our intent with the book was to try to explain Thomas, to unravel some of the mysteries about him. We have long believed that he is one of the most fascinating figures in public life, often caricatured and somewhat opaque for many. We have tried with this book to help people concerned about this country and its direction develop a deeper understanding of the most controversial justice on the nation's highest court.


Washington, D.C.: I'm 72 and went to law school during the most "activist" years of the Warren Court. Even then the concept of an "evolving" Constitution was controversial.

I personally don't see how it cannot evolve to meet changing times. Didn't Justice Black once famously say that he could find no reference to electronic wiretaping in the Constitution? As my granchildren would say, "Duh!" And one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention protested that, if a ban on cruel and unusual punishment were to be adopted, this would outlaw the then-current practice of cutting off felons hands. I also don't think the founders would want everyone running around with guns. Is this really what he wants?

Michael A. Fletcher: One thing Justice Thomas does is draw a distinction between what he "wants" and what he feels he has power to do as a justice. He once remarked that judging can sometimes be like seeing someone drowning 20 feet below you and having only 10 feet of rope. He, in short, sees a limited role for the judiciary. He would argue that the evolving mores of society should be reflected in laws--and Constitutional amendments--passed through the federal and state legislatures and through referenda. Now, many people --including other members of the court--take issue with that saying that our society is so much more complex than the Founders ever imagined, and that the language of the Constitution is often so vague, that it is does not make good sense to view our founding charter as being set in stone.


Washington, D.C.: When you write a biography of someone do you have to get that person's permission?

Michael A. Fletcher: Not if that person is a public figure. Of course, their cooperation is something an author would always prefer to have because the subject can reconcile events for a writer like no one else could. And we tried until the end to get Justice Thomas's cooperation, several times enlisting his friends to carry messages to him. But to no avail.


New York, N.Y.: Is Justice Thomas close to any of his colleagues on the court?

Kevin Merida: Not close as in sit at home and watch a college football game with. But we're told he has a relationship with Justice Ginsburg, who has taken a liking to his great nephew. He sits beside Justice Breyer during oral arguments, and they regularly carry on a whispery conversation. Both are considered justices who are very down to earth when it comes to interacting with the public. He and Justice Scalia share an affinity for how the Constitution should be interpreted, and have often commiserated together when they are on losing ends of votes.


Fairfax, Va.: If there were a way, do you think Justice Thomas would like to get out of that job and do something else?

Kevin Merida: Justice Thomas's good friend, Michael Luttig, who had been an appeals court judge and sometimes on short lists for Supreme Court vacancies, surprised some by quitting last year and becoming counsel to Boeing. His good friend, Larry Thompson, told us he would not be surprised if Thomas did find something else to do at some point. Not that he was predicting it. Only that Thomas likes to keep his options open--he told one visitor to the court who joined him for lunch not long ago that he would love to be a small businessman like his grandfather.


Detroit: Putting aside his possible political leanings, could you address how learned a constitutional scholar Thomas is? One reads that he is not the most intellectual of the justices on the Supreme Court. How well did he do in classes when he was younger and in jobs before he joined the Supreme Court?

Michael A. Fletcher: The best we could tell, Justice Thomas is well regarded among his colleagues. Also, former clerks say that he is well regarded even if his silence from the bench is an object of fascination. Contrary to some popular opinion, he writes his fair share of opinions. But during the time span covered by our book, at least, he has proven to be unwilling to compromise on many cases before the court, leaving him to influence the course of the law through his dissents and concurrences. He came to court with precious little litigation experience, having spent less than a year and a half on an appeals court before being tapped for the Supreme Court. Before that he worked as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as an assistant secretary at the Department of Education and as a Senate staffer. He also worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto, and his first job out of Yale Law School was with the attorney general's office in Missouri, where he gained the bulk of his courtroom experience before being seated on the bench. Classmates said he worked hard at Yale, and he was among the top graduates at the College of the Holy Cross. Rather than describe him as brilliant, most people say Justice Thomas is hard-working and determined.


Michael A. Fletcher: Time's up. Thanks for the great questions.


Macon, Ga.: So, why doesn't he ever speak in court?

Kevin Merida: The justice has given several explanations for why he doesn't speak more from the bench: he believes all good questions will get asked at some point, he believes the advocates deserve a chance to be heard instead of constantly being cut off by justices, he believes some of his colleagues are really engaged in debate among each other and that some like the sound of their own voice. But perhaps the most detailed explanation he has given traces his reticence back to being a teenager when he spoke in a coastal dialect known as Geechee or Gullah. He was teased about it, and became so self-conscious, he said, that he developed the habit of listening.


Kevin Merida: Well, this ends our chat. Thanks for tuning in. We hope those who are interested in learning more about Thomas will pick up our book. Appreciate all of the fine questions.


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