Home   |   Register               Web Search: by Google
channel navigation

  Political News

 Political News
 The Issues
 Federal Page
 Columns - Cartoons
 Live Online
 Online Extras
 Photo Galleries
 Video - Audio





Text: Justice Clarence Thomas Speaks to Students

Wednesday, December 13, 2000

Following is the transcript of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's remarks to students the day after the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore.

THOMAS: Well, good morning. You all have exquisite timing. If you'd come a day earlier, I think we would probably not be able to do this. If you had come a day later, I probably would have collapsed by then.


But I'm going to take a few minutes just to tell you a little bit about what we do. And then we'll open the questions.

As I say to a lot of groups, remember, the questions, all questions, are good as long as you want an answer. I think that's important. That's the reason for asking questions. I think sometimes people forget why you ask questions. It's not to make a point; it's to get information.

The last few weeks have been exhausting, I think, for the entire court. But in a lot of ways, it shows the strength of our system of government.

Think of some of the turmoil you may have heard or seen about the issues that have occurred over the past few weeks, at least from our perspective. And then consider the court as an institution. I can still say, after the events of this week and all the turmoil, that in nine-plus years here, I've yet to hear the first unkind word.

Now, can you think of any place else where you can say that?

In nine years of considering the most difficult issues, I've yet to hear the first unkind words.

The reason I say that is because with so many of the issues that we deal with, not only are they exhausting, but they're complicated, they stir passions and strong feelings, people have strong opinions. And when people have strong opinions, what do they do? There's a real tendency, if not temptation, to begin yelling at each other, to begin the very emotional replies to each other.

Now people up here are human beings. They're passionate. But our responsibilities require us to do what? They require us to make reasoned decisions.

Now what happens I think often is that the cynics and the skeptics will say, "Nobody makes reasoned decisions. We're all upset. We all make emotional decisions or we make self-interested decisions."

In nine years, again, I'm in my 10th term, if you look at my official photograph you see there's faint resemblance to me--a few pounds lighter, and I only have a few gray hairs in that picture. Now I only have a few hairs.


And what I have of that is gray.

But going into my 10th term, or well into my 10th term, I can honestly say to you all that the effort here is to not be self-interested. It is to fulfill our oaths. And I can say that, with respect to my colleagues, I believe deeply that each of them think that they have fulfilled their oaths.

That's why I can say at the end, even in the sense, I respectfully dissent, respecting what? I respect you, your opinions, your efforts to live up to your oath. That's the hallmark of this institution.

And if we don't have that in a society where we disagree, then we have anarchy. And if we have anarchy, we don't have a society.

So I think that this institution is precious.

Something Justice Powell said when he was still alive, to me, as we would occasionally have lunch, and that is that you never feel as though you belong here. You just feel honored to have had the opportunity to serve.

This isn't a place where we have all sorts of perks or anything like that. And I don't think anyone relishes making hard decisions. How many times in your lives have you said, "Oh, gosh, I don't want to decide that. I don't want to make the choices"?

But if you are called upon to do it, and you take an oath to do it, I think there's a proper way to do it. And I think that my colleagues and myself attempt to do that.

Now with that opening, I am going to try to respond to all your questions. If I can't respond--particularly I'd try to avoid the case that we had this week, because I think it's still too close to current events.

You can talk about the court. And there are no bad questions. If I can't answer, I will just simply tell you I can't answer.

But have at it.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, I was wondering, how do you separate your emotions with your cases?

THOMAS: That is a very good question. And it's an effort that is central to what we do.

First of all, when I first became a judge, I was on the court of appeals for a very brief period. And one of my more senior colleagues gave me a bit of advice that I have thanked him for routinely. He said, "Remember that your question to yourself, when you pick up a case file, is, 'What is my role in this case as a judge?'" Not as a citizen, not as a partisan, not as a representative of anybody, but as a judge.

When I do that, if I have any prejudices about anything in a particular case, I usually try to be very honest with my clerks about those prejudices, and honest with myself about what those prejudices are.

Then what I attempt to do is to lean against those prejudices and ask them if they see in any instant when I am bending, because of the prejudice that I have no other reasons for, to point it out.

But I think you always have to be on guard against your self-interest and your prejudice, because once you--I think once you cease or once you allow yourself to make decisions based on your prejudices you're lawless, and we have no authority to do that. And if I reach that point, then I think it's time for me to leave.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, why did you agree to do this interview with us?

THOMAS: Well, I don't think it's necessarily an interview. The only difference between this and some of my other meetings is that there are cameras in the room. I try to see quite a few student groups and younger kids.

One reason is, because when I was your age, I wasn't able to do it. And I always thought it was, in many instances, rather odd that people who were making big decisions in our society, I think, all too often inaccessible to the next generation of leaders. I mean, you're self-selected. You're in an advanced placement courses.

Whether you like it or not, in a few years you're running things. You're making the decisions.

When I came to this town in 1979, I knew very few people. And one of the things I attempted to do was to get people to meet with me, just to talk with me, to give me some advice, to give me a sense of what it's like to make hard decisions, like the question you asked, you know. We all have prejudices. And you want to know, how do you do it, how do you put it aside?

But I do it simply to let you see something other than someone's rendition of what this institution's about, because it's yours. This is what you're going to inherit. It's your Constitution.

You know, when you take your government class, sometimes it's taught almost as this thing that's out there. But think about it a little bit different when you go back to government class. This is yours. I don't know if you have a car or whether you have a bike or something like that or a stereo or your room, but it's your stuff. I mean, how many times have you said, "This is my stuff. These are my books"? This is your country, this is your Constitution, your Supreme Court, and it's a way of giving you a different look at it. I don't have any reason other than wanting you to know. That's it. And to recruit some law clerks.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, what grounds does the court use to decide to hear a case that deals with a topic that they have previously made a ruling on?

THOMAS: What grounds do we decide? It's basically the same thing.

Even if you've decided a case, I mean, whether it's a First Amendment case or a Fourth Amendment case, a Fifth Amendment case, Eighth Amendment case you've heard it all before, at some point, but there's always one more problem you had not anticipated. And so what you look for, you assume now there's a federal issue, because it's our Constitution, but then you look among our courts of appeals and the states court, the final resort and see if there's some confusion out there. If there's enough confusion, then we will--with four votes of my colleagues--we will vote to grant the case and bring it here to hear it again, if it's a significant problem.

That's basically it; there's no other agenda or anything of that nature.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, what type of preparation takes place before you hear a case?

THOMAS: That's a very good question. In the last case we had, which was on an emergency basis, as I told one of my colleagues, I hadn't pulled an all-nighter since law school.

But it's a lot of reading. It's basically what you all do: reading, writing and thinking. Hopefully not in that order. But you spend a lot of time preparing.

Thank goodness for computers now, because you can get access to information very quickly. For example, we had the Florida Supreme Court opinion within a few minutes and was reading it within less than an hour after it was decided.

So normally, in our standard cases, however, I start with the briefs and the cert petition and the cases from below. You read those. I meet with my law clerks, and there are four law clerks, and we discuss it in detail in chambers. So we go through that preparation. And then you go on the bench.

Remember, we also are familiar with the case because we decided to bring the case here, so we generally know what the facts are and we know what the argument's about.

And we've heard it before. You know, I've been here nine years, so I've sat on hundreds of cases and worked on hundreds of opinions, so the--you're familiar with it basically, and the case law, but now you want to think it through and you get a chance to think it through with your law clerks.

Then, when you go on the bench, you have a pretty good idea of what your thinking is. And you hear the oral arguments.

Then you go back to conference shortly--and when we sit, we sit Monday through Wednesday. The Monday cases are decided Wednesday afternoon. The Tuesday and Wednesday cases are decided on Friday mornings.

And now we make our decision in outline form in our chambers, so I know when I walk in the conference we have an outline of my thinking in this case. And then you decide, you have to vote. You have some discussion in conference, we go around the table, starting with the chief justice, then descending order of seniority, and we vote, and you give an explanation. Some of it's repetitive, because all your colleagues may have said it.

And then the opinions are signed and we write the opinions to explain. We don't have the luxury of just saying, ``Well, I feel that this should be the answer.'' We have to explain why we think it's the answer. And then people spend a lifetime trying to parse what we just said and picking it apart.

But it's a long process.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Justice Thomas, what does our system of government hold the greatest allegiance to above all else? I mean, if it had to choose--say, if it could only choose one thing to hold allegiance to because of some case or some instance, what would it follow if it had to choose one thing to follow?

THOMAS: Oh, let me just try to pick through that. I think it all starts with the liberty, I think, in the sense of inherent equality that flows from being human beings. If we don't have that, then there's no reason to have self-government, because self-government assumes that we have free will and that we are different and we do have liberty and that we will simply then order our lives, we'll give up a bit of that in order to be governed people. You see what I'm saying?

So I would start with that, and then I think all else flows from that. And you can explain why we have liberty, why we're inherently different. But I would start there, and we're inherently equal.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, as a Supreme Court justice, what do you feel you bring to the bench that is unique from all your fellow justices?

THOMAS: Oh, my goodness. You know, I think we all bring something unique, each one of my colleagues. We're all different and we all have just a little different perspective on life and on law, we see things--and that's why it's so important to respect your colleagues, not to criticize them or not to suspect them, but to respect them.

And to say, "Look, you've got an opinion, I want to think it through. I'm not going to just reject it, because I don't initially agree with you, but there's something you bring to the table and I think I want to spend some time thinking about it."

Now, I am the only member of the court born in the '40s. Now, that may seem ancient to you all. You can laugh, you'll be there one day.


But I was born in '48, so I'm the first baby boomer. The other thing, I have a different race. Not only am I a different race, I'm from the Deep South. I was born and raised under a different system that I hope never to return to our country. I have a different perspective on that. I was in the seminary for four years. I taught myself algebra one summer. I bring all that. You see what I'm saying? I'm different, and that difference is respected.

But we do have in common is a common oath to interpret this Constitution, the laws of the United States in an impartial way. We this common endeavor, but we're all very, very different. But that's an excellent question.


QUESTION: Mr. Thomas, how do you want to be remembered upon leaving the Supreme Court?

THOMAS: How do I want to be remembered? Oh, gosh, maybe I won't be remembered.

You know, well, ask me that, and I said, "You know, I'm the 106th member of the court." And other than the most obvious members to have been here and past away, can you name 20 members of the court? Well, see there you go, most are not remembered, and so maybe I'll be there on that list of unremembered members of the court.

But I think to the very few who have spent time with me that I did my job and I did it fairly and conscientiously and honestly. That's all you can hope for.

What we've done, I think, in the society is to try to put a premium on things that I don't think really matters much, or who's got the highest IQ. Everybody here is reasonably bright. You wouldn't be in this room. You see what I'm saying? You're reasonably conscientious. There are other things, some of the intangibles that you want. You do want to know that we are honestly trying to do our job.

You know, I wish sometimes, you know, we were--and I wish that there was a way for the people, who are citizens of this country, to see the seriousness and the angst of the members of the court when we sit in conference room. When we go into conference there's no staff in there, there are no recording devices, there's just the nine members of the court. And I wish they could just see just the concern and the people grappling for the answers and being respectful of each other's opinions, and being humble enough--this is a humbling job.

You know, when I was a younger person, I had all the answers. My grandfather called me Mr. Know-it-all. "You've got the answer to everything." Well, when you get older the answers disappear and you get more questions. And he said, "Oh, my goodness, this is not answered by that." And so, it's a humbling process.

And maybe a part of that I'd like to be remembered as having done the job, not with arrogance, but with humility, because trying to solve big problems that you can't quite get your arms around is a humbling process.

I don't think you're good at math, but I know when I took some math courses and I tackled some of those problems, I'll tell you, there's a humbling process, you see, if not humiliating, you know. But it's humbling to have to solve hard problems, because there are no quick and easy answers. The only people who have the easy answers are the people who don't have the responsibility to make the decision.


QUESTION: When making a ruling, do you usually contemplate every possible outcome or go with your first instincts?

THOMAS: That is a great question. One of the things that happened as you prepare for a case and you're reading the briefs is that you: "Oh, boy, you know, that makes a lot of sense." Then you read the other brief: "Oh, you know, that makes a lot of sense, too."

And you have to sort through it. You really have to think it through. You just can't go with instinct or you don't need to read the briefs. That's the nature of prejudices. The thing that, sort of, bothers me sometimes, people with quick answers.

You know, as I travel around the country people criticize the rulings of the court and they say, "Well, you guys were bad on this or that."

And I say, "Well, have you read the opinion?"


"You know, how would you know? You haven't read it, you haven't read the arguments, you haven't read the briefs, you haven't thought it through, you haven't read the cases, you don't know what the limitations are."

"Well, but I feel."

You know, that's easy to say, "I feel," but we have to decide. You see what I'm saying?

So, yes, you're influenced by each arguments, but as a part of that process of attacking it, I think, in a humble and honest way, you're willing to be persuaded if there's a good counter-argument. And to do that you not only have to be open to it, you got to do the work to understand the argument and then be persuaded or not be persuaded.

And as you go along, I make a recommendation to you, is before you get caught up in the arguments about whether you agree or disagree with something, that you actually examine it yourself. You're bright enough to do that. It's easy to criticize any decision-maker, whether it's the president or Congress or the Senate, the House, a business person, or whether it's the Supreme Court or a court of appeals. That's easy. It's a little bit harder to do all the work and try to see what you would do if you were in the same position. And I would encourage you to do that.

But I go back and forth when I read the briefs, then I make up my mind after I've gone through everything.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, I'm interested a career in the law. I was wondering if you could give me the typical career path of a Supreme Court justice.

THOMAS: Oh, gosh, I don't know. You know, I'm the last person to tell you. All my plans have just gone down the drain. They're all gone. I tried. I couldn't get a job out of law school. I can't--I really can't tell you, other than this: that you do well what's before you and don't stop dreaming and hoping and thinking.

I had planned to be just to finish law school and to go back to Savannah and perhaps be wealthy or very successful in Savannah. Then I couldn't get a job out of law school, so I got one job--I finally got a job in Jefferson City, Missouri, the attorney general of Missouri. And that job led to a job in St. Louis, in the corporate law department of Monsanto Company.

And then I was going to leave, I was tired of that, and I was going to go back home, and I stopped here to work for Senator Danforth for a year or two. Then that led to my going into the Reagan administration, and that led to going to court of appeals. And I thought, "The court of appeals, this is a great end of the line, I can work here." And the next thing I know, they're sending me up here.

So I really can't tell you. The only thing I've done is tried to do my job the best I can, wherever I am, and do it honestly, not be swayed by fads and prejudices and other people's opinions, but to honestly examine it and do the best I could and let every--there's so much beyond my control.

I couldn't appoint myself to the court, and I didn't make these big campaign contributions, I didn't know anybody. Someone else had to do that, think well of you, and it has to be based on something. And I would hope that it was based on the fact that I always did well and honestly what was set before me.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, when you were a senior in high school, what were your life goals?

THOMAS: That's a great question. You know, before I do these events, I go back and take a look at my high school yearbook. And it reminds that I was your age, and it forces me to ask myself the same kind of questions you just asked. And also to ask myself why I do this.

I do this, as I said before, because I think it's important for us to talk to you. And if I were where you are, it would be important to me to hear from someone who was here.

Now, my goal, when I was in high school--I graduated in 1967. My goal was to become a priest. I was in the seminary. I was the only black kid in my high school in Savannah--right outside of Savannah. So you can imagine that that was a different world.

I also wanted to be great athlete. I fashioned myself a great athlete then. And one of things you learn as you get older is, the older you get, the greater you were.


So I was really a great athlete.


But the best thing to happen to me was going into that seminary. I went in in 1964. It was extremely difficult. It was a different era.

It was also extremely beneficial because they put before us, by the time--and remember, this is Savannah, Georgia, in the '60s--by the time I got out of high school, I had two years of French, three years of Latin, two years of German, physics, chemistry. I taught myself algebra one summer, and I took algebra II and trig--part of trig, not much of it. And you can go down the list and imagine what it was like. We went school five and a half days a week. The best thing that ever happened to me.

I went on to first-year college to become a priest. And it was from there that I transferred to Holy Cross. I had done extremely well academically all the way along. And one thing led to another again.

All I did--I was never the number one student. I was never the extraordinary student. I was kind of a guy who just worked hard and did well. And sometimes very well.

And my dream was probably just--my granddaddy said I have a coat-and-tie job one day when I got out. That's what he said. "Well, you go to school and learn so you can get a coat-and-tie job. Don't do like I have to do."

So that's it. There were no--beyond being an athlete and a priest, there wasn't a whole lot.

But then, I'd never been here. I'd never been here. I'd never seen a Supreme Court justice. The closest I came to seeing a Supreme Court justice were those "Impeach Earl Warren" signs along the highway.


I never saw and thought I'd ever see a president. We saw President Kennedy, I was in my 10th grade homeroom study when we heard that he was assassinated. I mean, we can all remember where we were when that happened, those of us who were alive.

But I didn't have--it wasn't like a big world. My--99.9 percent of my life was spent in three counties in Georgia: Chatham, Bryan and Liberty. I had never been to Jacksonville, Florida--which is only a couple of hours, two and a half maybe three hours from Savannah. You see?

So my world was--this world that you have is so different. And so part of the reasons why I'm here so your dreams can be bigger than mine were.

But again, I go back to what I said before: The important thing is that every night I sat down and did what I was supposed to do, you know.

I read the books that I was supposed to, I read "Gone With the Wind" and all those things; read that with a flashlight.

My little buddy at home, now, that's one of his treats. He can stay up a little bit later if he reads with a flashlight, you know. So boy you've got a really good flashlight so he can stay up late; it's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" was the last one.

I would say, that whatever your dreams are, keep them there. People will talk you out of them. I can't tell you how many times people said to me, "It doesn't matter what you dream." We had the Carnegie Library in Savannah, and that's where I could really explore my dreams, in books. And the guys would say, "You're wasting your time. The man isn't going to let you do this, the man isn't going to let you do that." I said, "That is a busy man."


You know?

But the dreams stayed and they kept me going. They may have been a little naive, but they kept me going. So don't let people take your dreams away. Or as one of the guards said, when I first came here, he said, "Don't let them steal your joy." And I would urge you: Just stay positive.

Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Justice Thomas, how come you didn't follow through with the priesthood?

THOMAS: How come I didn't follow through with the priesthood? Race relations; that one major contradiction in all that we believe in. And that was a--the priesthood, by the way, was my number one dream; athletes, everybody dreamt about being athletes and astronauts--but the race issue: the seeming hypocrisy on the issue of race. And then Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated that spring, and that was it for me. And I rejected, not only the priesthood, but religion.

And so, years later, I would find out, as you get older, that it wasn't the religion that was a problem, it was the fallibility and failures and imperfection of man.

The issue of race is the one major albatross around the neck of this country and many of our positive institutions.


QUESTION: How does party affiliation influence decision-making in the Supreme Court?

THOMAS: Zero. That is, it's so fascinating.

Let's agree on something. I'll give you an example, OK? Do you think that abortion is one of the cutting-edge issues in our society?


THOMAS: OK. And do, from a party affiliation standpoint, it's been generally assumed that if people are nominated by Republican presidents, they're anti-abortion. Do you agree with that?


THOMAS: The last major abortion case we had here--was what?--it was Casey. It was out of the state of Pennsylvania.

Now, one of the issues is whether or not the court would overrule Roe v. Wade. And that was one of the reasons why my confirmation was so difficult.

Now, there was only one Democrat appointee on the court when Casey was decided not to overrule Roe v. Wade. That one Democrat joined us in the dissent, saying that it should be overruled. That Roe v. Wade was upheld by the vote of five Republican appointees. Does that say anything to you?

That is a wonderful little argument that people pull out selectively to make about the court.

I've been here nine years, I haven't seen it. Friendships aren't made based on that. Decisions aren't made based on it.

Indeed, I'll tell you, I don't read the papers enough to know what they're thinking out there. And they seem to be all over the map.

The one thing that we, I think, we all try (inaudible). That's it. Now, you and I can disagree about how to interpret that. You may want to be a little bit broader in your analysis, I may be a little stricter about the text than you are. You may look at history a certain way and I look at it another way. Those are all legitimate. You would agree with that, right?

But we'll arrive at different conclusions. I will not ascribe your--say that your decision is made because you were appointed by, let's say, a Democrat president. I would be--you see, that's an easy out. That's like calling someone a name. That's like slurring the process. It's more, I think, exacting for you to go in and take them on face value: They meant what they said.

That's what I mean by "I respectfully dissent." And I think that whatever you do, if you disagree with someone or you make a decision, always do it in a way that you can honestly say at the end of it, "I respectfully dissent. I respect your point of view that I've examined, but I will dissent from it." And you owe it to yourself.

Now, think about it. Think about this a second. That people are quick to say that your decisions, or mine, or, say, they disagree with you, is made for some ulterior motive, then ask yourself how are their decisions made and why is there no examination of what I said? If you want me to conscientiously decide, why is there no burden on you to conscientiously examine what I've decided? And if you want me to honestly decide, why is there no burden on you to honestly examine what I've said? If you want me to respectfully dissent, why don't you respectfully examine what I have worked on? Do you see what I'm saying?

It is easy to be a cynic. I was in the grocery line two years ago and there were several people in front of me, and someone walked up wearing, say, an Eagles jacket or something, I can't remember exactly what--Eagles football team jacket, and the guy at the cash register said, "Oh, that's a terrible team, they always lose, you know, they're always rebuilding."

And someone walks up wearing a Redskin jacket, he said, "Oh, terrible team, never. Since Joe Gibbs, nothing."

This guy walks up, you know, he's wearing like a Colts thing, you know. "Oh, yeah, always moving in the middle of the night or something, you know, terrible team."

So he asked me--I didn't have anything on, I just walked up, you know, had my few little items--he said, "What's your team." I said, "I'm not telling you. What's your team?" And he said, "I don't have one. I just like criticizing other people's teams."


You see what I'm saying? It's easy to be a critic and a cynic. It's hard to be a decision-maker. You make the decision what you want to be.


QUESTION: Good afternoon, Justice Thomas. I wanted to ask you what idea, person or event do you think has had the most influence on your life?

THOMAS: Oh, that's a great question. The greatest influence on my life was that of my grandparents. That's it.

I've read--I like Churchill. I love Lincoln. I think the Gettysburg Address, I just wonder sometimes, who among us can write the Gettysburg Address? Who? I mean, it's hard. I don't know if you go to Gettysburg and just stand there and just imagine what he saw as he was saying this and what was going on and what was going through his mind. And think about it. Who could write that?

Or you think about Churchill when Adolf Hitler's rolling across Europe. I mean, undaunted. Everybody's--they're either bending down--you know, they're either on their knees begging him or they're being blown apart by him.

What is it that propels a man to stand up and say no?

No, I admire those people, but those aren't the greatest influences.

My grandfather and my grandmother. My grandfather was a strong, honest, honorable man who could have been angry; had every reason to be angry and mean. He was abandoned. Never knew his father. Mother died when he was 9. He went to live with his grandmother. She died when he was 12. And she had been a freed slave. And then he went to live with an uncle who had 16 kids or so.

And yet he wasn't angry and mean. Why?

And then he reaches back when he's almost 50 years old and takes in two little boys who--literally but for him we would have been dead. I mean, we would have been in big trouble; we were statistics just waiting to happen. But he said, "I'm going to raise these boys."

So, no, they had the greatest influence. My grandmother was saintly. My brother passed away in January. And, you know, I would ask him, I'd say, "You know, did they ever"--he made a promise to us when we went to live with him in 1955 that he would never tell us, "Do as I say, not as I do." He said, "I will always tell you, 'Do as I do.'"

And so I like to check things with my brother. We were basically raised as twins, although he's a little bit younger than me, a year and three months younger.

And I asked him if he had fallen down on that promise, and he said, "No, never." Even though we were, like, teenagers whose parents didn't know anything and weren't smart enough, as we got older, then we realized just how this man was an absolute genius and our grandmother was an absolute saint. And how could we have fallen into that?

And that's under segregation.

And yet, he raised a family, he built his life, he built our lives. My brother was the president of a real estate management company. He was building a Hilton hotel when he died.

The reason you never heard of him because he was just my brother. He wasn't my publicist, or he wasn't anybody taking credit for anything. My brother.

But we feel that he lived up to every promise he made, you know, never let us down.

And the other thing was that I had to deliver fuel oil with him and also work on the farm during the summer. And we were always around him. And so we got all the lectures on economics, on human relations.

I remember when I first came in to the Reagan administration and the criticism of me started. I had never been criticized in my life. And it started, and I was a young man, and I went home because I was really upset by it. And he just looked at me--and this is just the last time I saw him alive--and he said, "Son, you have to stand up for what you believe in." That was it. It wasn't any more complicated than that. If you believe in it, you've got to stand up for it.

Now you can be false to yourself and change your beliefs, or say you don't believe what you truly believe. Or you can not stand up, like the people who didn't stand up to Hitler. But it's stand up for what you believe in. That's it. That's pretty simple, isn't it?

But he's my hero and my grandmother's my hero.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Justice Thomas, what consideration do you take when you make decisions?

THOMAS: What consideration? Basically the law. That's it for me. There are different ways of looking at it, but it's the law, or the Constitution. I think everything else is extraneous. Everything else is--because my opinion is no more valid than your opinion. I was not put anyplace to inflict my views on you. What is my role as a judge?

I'm a Cowboys fan. I can't require you to be one. You see what I'm saying? I like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I can't require you to like the Buccaneers. You see what I'm saying?

But when it comes to the law, I took an oath with respect to the law and this Constitution. So that's what I stick to. And that's hard enough. I don't have all the answers, I'm not a philosopher king or anything like that.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: What was the basis for your decision in the case of the Boys Scouts of America v. Dale?

THOMAS: Oh, gosh, that was last term. You'd probably have to read the opinions.

I think that was First Amendment right of association, wasn't it? Go back and take a look at that. I mean, it's just basically our view of the Constitution, what the constitutional rights were.

QUESTION: A gay Scout leader who was involved with the Boy Scouts of America.

THOMAS: Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: And I was just curious, what led to your decision regarding his not being able to be a Scout leader?

THOMAS: No, that was the--the question was whether or not a private organization could exclude someone as a Scout leader if they wanted to, and the issue was whether or not their right of association would allow them to exclude someone, you know.

You can change it around. Let's change it to something that's not as controversial, OK, so you don't have to replay that.

Suppose you had an organization that was a civil rights organization and a Klansman met all of their--I'm not saying that this person was a Klansman or anything--but a Klansman met all their criteria. Could they exclude him? Why? Yes, they can. That's the point, is do they have a right to say that, "If I have my private organization I can exclude a Klansman from my organization"? You see what I'm saying?

Suppose you have an organization of homosexuals who want to exclude something they think hates homosexuals. Can they exclude him?


THOMAS: Do you see my point? On what basis?


THOMAS: So you have the same dilemma.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, I was wondering what affect, if any, do the political affiliations, not of the justices of the Supreme Court, but of the majority that's in Congress and of the president have on either what cases you hear or how will you decide your cases?

THOMAS: That's a good question. The answer is none. They don't try to influence us, and they don't. We happen to be in the same city. We may as well be on an entirely different planets. We may as well be on entirely different planets. It's absolutely eerie.

I mean, just think about it, what you hear here. There's no buzzers going off. That's a political world. They respect the differences, and we respect the differences.

When I was first sworn in here, in October of '91, Senator Danforth came over from the Senate, because I had to do what the chief justice--it was a very difficult time; for reasons I won't get into--and chief justice said he would swear me in at noon. So Senator Danforth came over, my wife came over and we were walking through the halls. And walking along and was looking, and he said, "Clarence, this place is like a mausoleum." And I said, "Because it's so quiet, and it's all marble." And then as we walked further along, he said, "Clarence, where are the dead bodies?" You know.


But it's a different world. It's entirely different. That's why I plead with you that whatever you do don't try to apply the rules of the political world to this institution. They do not apply. Now, you can criticize and there are basis for disagreeing, but it's not the model to use across the street. They're in an entirely different world. But they have no influence on us.

The last political act we engage in is confirmation. That is the last act. And I have yet to hear any discussion, in nine years, of partisan politics among the members of the court.

And let me just add one point, and I'll get to your question.

The sort of--people sometimes think--and it's not you, it's not a suggestion from your question--they think that up here, people appointed by certain presidents, maybe hang out together or anything like that. That doesn't happen. The members of the court don't pair off like that or don't group themselves like that; there aren't these cliques up here.

There are different majorities in different cases, and it has to do with the way people are reasoning in these specified areas. And sometimes the majorities that you do have, so defy the conventional wisdom that they just throw those out of the pool, and they pick the cases that they want to say are the ones that they use to make their point.

QUESTION: The point of my question was not exactly the direct effect, but the indirect effect of pool of cases that you receive. Does that change with the political affiliations?

THOMAS: Oh, I'm sorry, I missed your point, then.

The answer to that is, it may and it may not have so much to do with the political affiliation as it is their view of the role of government. So, for example, if you think that if you have a president who thinks that we should not be as interventionists from a regulatory standpoint, you have fewer regulations, so you have fewer cases about regulation. If you have a president who thinks that the antitrust laws interfere, to some extent, with free enterprise, then you don't have as many antitrust cases. If you have people who are very aggressive in the area of crime, then you have more criminal cases or legislation. Same thing with First Amendment, abortion, et cetera.

So there may be some movement and shift based on that, but I don't think it necessarily tracks in a partisan way, but more in an ideological way.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Justice Thomas, I'd like to know what role your religion, if any, plays in the decisions you make?

THOMAS: As far as the decision-making process, none. As far as just sustaining you as a human being, everything. It's that simple, you know.

I'm Catholic and I go to mass. And as I said, this job is not an easy job. And you see people--it's allowable, I guess, in our society, that when people have some difficulties or something tragic happens, it's OK to pray.

But I can tell you that when you are called upon to make these decisions, you have to ask for strength. I mean, I don't have it inherently, I just--this is a hard, hard--these are hard decisions. And so I always want to do it honestly and fairly.

And you pray for--I used to say a little prayer when I was at EEOC: Lord, give me the strength--the wisdom to know what's right and the strength to do it, or the courage to do it. That's it. And that's what I do here, just try to be honest about it.

But that's it. As far as making decisions, none.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, how has your family background influenced your career and your life?

THOMAS: How has my family background? Oh, gosh.

I think, knowing what I know, and the road that I've been fortunate enough to travel, it makes me very hopeful for others. And I plead with others who start out and things look dismal not to give up and always be hopeful and keep trying.

I had been a cynic at one point, and that was probably the most difficult hurdle. And I've been, at points, at a very low point. Life can be a humbling process, and you tend to want people who are going through that to continue struggling, tell them there's still a reason to struggle.

I come from a simple background, simple people, with amazing courage and strength. And I have a bust of my grandfather that oversees me in my office, and inscribed on that is "Old Man Can't is dead. I helped bury him." My grandfather would say that when we said something was impossible.

If he didn't give up, by what right do I give up? If he didn't whine, by what right do I whine? If he didn't cry in his beer, by what right do I cry in mine? You see what I'm saying?

So his life is, sort of, a lessons to me, his and my grandmother's, of constantly hoping and trying. And maybe it doesn't work for me, but it'll work for the generation, whether it's my son or my great nephew we're raising, that life--something will work out.

And wasn't my grandfather right? He had no education, but it worked out for his boys. That's what he said, "I'm going to raise my boys so that they can one day have a coat-and-tie job and work in air conditioned rather out in this heat." That's what he said. Did it work or not? There's a reason to be hopeful.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, I've noticed that during oral arguments you tend not to ask a lot of questions. Could you tell me why that is?

THOMAS: Oh, boy, that's a good question. Let me give you--there are lots of reasons, I'll give you a couple, a few, OK.

One, do you think there are too few questions asked?


THOMAS: Yes. So there's no reason to add to the volume.

I also believe strongly, unless I want an answer, I don't ask things. I don't ask for entertainment, I don't ask to give people a hard time.

I have some very active colleagues who like to ask questions. Usually, if you wait long enough, someone will ask your question.

The other thing, I was on that other side of the podium before, in my earlier life, and it's hard to stand up by yourself and to have judges who are going to rule on your case ask you tough questions. I don't want to give them a hard time.

But I'm going to give you a more personal reason. I think this is probably the first time I ever even told anybody about it.

How old are you?


THOMAS: You're 16. Well, I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown with grownups speaking a kind of a dialect. It's called Guychee (ph). Some people call it Gullah now. And people praise it now, but they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English.

When I transferred to an all-white school, at your age, I was self-conscious, like we all are. It's like if we get pimples at 16 or we grow six inches and we're taller than everybody else or our feet grow, something, we get self-conscious. And the problem was that--the problem was that I would correct myself mid-sentence. I was trying to speak standard English, I was thinking in standard English but speaking another language.

So I learned that--I just started developing the habit of listening, and it just got to be--I didn't ask questions in college or law schools, and I found that I could learn better just listening. And if I have a question, I could ask it later.

For all these reasons, and a few others, I just think that it's more in my nature to listen rather than to ask a bunch of questions. And they get asked anyway.

The only reason I could see for asking the questions is to let people know I've got something to ask. That's not a legitimate reason in the Supreme Court of the United States.


QUESTION: What are your codes of conduct that you follow as being a justice?

THOMAS: Whoa, that's a good question.

To be honest and fair and conscientious. And to really in the back of your mind to know, and people think it's cynical, but for the grace of God there go I. And to understand that this is it. I mean, this is our contract. That's it. That's what we turned over to the government, and it's got to live up to that contract and we got to live up to our part of it.

And you ask people sometime, people have read the warranties to their computers, and some people have even read the manuals, OK, but you ask people how many have read this, this document? This is our freedom, this is our liberty, this is our organized or our civilized society. And it's this document.

How many people who have an opinion about the events in the decisions on this court have even looked at this? Constitution of the United States, that's what we live by.

And, you know, I guess the thing that wears you down is you just hope that you do no harm to this.

And there are lots of people who are so interested in getting their way that this is an inconvenience. It was an inconvenience on racial issues. There shouldn't have been this segregation in this society; shouldn't have been a segregated military. You know that. I mean, just look at this document.

And we can't have that. These are the rules.

And I want to always be known as a person who was very clear, very honest, very straightforward, didn't hide the ball when it comes to these rules. Because if these go, buddy, we're done.

And I don't want to be one who, for his own selfish reasons to be popular, to go along with fads--remember--just remember, keep it in the back of your mind: The elites did not oppose anti-Semitism and Hitler. Not early on. Think about it. And you know that was wrong. Churchill knew it was wrong. Lincoln knew what was going on in this country was wrong and did something about it.

So I would just like to be clear, to be honest, conscientious, impartial. No axes to grind. Just protect this. That's what I took an oath to do.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Justice Thomas, what are the differences and duties between the chief justice and the other associate justices?

THOMAS: That's a very good question.

The chief is the boss. He is in charge of the entire federal judiciary. In addition, he's our leader up here. If I--no, I'm not going to say that because I would, sort of, put a curse on myself. I don't want that to every happen in life.

But if someone else is not nominated on the court to be chief justice, he has to be--he or she would have to be nominated and confirmed all over again. You can't just be elevated to that. That's number one.

Number two. The chief is the most senior of the members of the court. He is in charge. And everything except making our decisions--now, I qualify that, because there's quite a bit that is done by the conference, that is, by majority vote of the members of the court.

But generally, he's in charge. But not--no one tells you how to make your decision. Everybody here is independent. And we don't have all these meetings and cabals and things. You sit in your chambers and you reach your decision, and you reach a consensus and write it.

An opinion is circulated. You comment in writing and you reach a consensus. There's no one looking over your shoulder. You don't drop in on people and all that sort of thing. It's not done that way.

It's a very elegant and quiet place. Very professional. Very dignified. That's the way the decisions are made. Much like this room.

And I think any American, anybody in this country, would be proud, anybody who lives under this Constitution would be proud, and ask themselves if they were to do it, could they do it any better.

But, no, the chief justice is in charge. And he assigns all the writing of opinions, when he's in the majority, so you've got to be real nice to him.

Maybe we have time for a couple more.


QUESTION: Justice Thomas, how does the court handle a justice that has become immensely incapable of serving the court?

THOMAS: Hopefully that doesn't happen here. But there are statutory provisions for that.

Are you thinking about--did I say something that suggests...


But generally, people do--no one wants to force anybody out. This is a family up here. It's amazing. People go to each other. And it's not happened since I've been here. Just a fabulous place. Absolutely fabulous.

Probably the saddest moment, other than when my brother died, being here is when one of the members retires from the court, or one of the members passes away. It changes. It's just a--it's a palpable change among the members. It's very personal.

Maybe we can get time for one more here.


QUESTION: So how do you hope to influence today's youth? And what kind of a role model do you want to be?

THOMAS: One--that's a very, very good question.

One, doing my job honestly, with clarify; and being consistent. Not try to hide the ball, not tell you to do as I say and not as I do. I try not to go along with fads that are popular today and gone tomorrow, the wide tie, the thin tie. That's an irrelevant kind of a fad.

But when it comes to these documents, they're time-honored principles. And simply, I try to give an example to my law clerks. They're my son's age. And it's simply that when you believe in something, it takes a little bit of courage to stand up for it. It's hard. It's hard when you're getting beaten, or if people are yelling at you, to do your job in a calm, impartial way; not to harm those who are beating you because they're beating you.


© 2000 The Washington Post Company

Post Archives

Advanced Search

Politics Where
You Live

Enter state abbrev.
or ZIP code

Home   |   Register               Web Search: by Google
channel navigation