Clarence Thomas confounds many who call on him for the first time. They expect to see one of the images they have heard about -- the rigid ideologue, the neutered justice disconnected from his race, Antonin Scalia's puppy. Instead, they are often surprised.
"It was totally baffling to me," U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said of her visit to Thomas's chambers in June 1998. "I didn't know how to take it." Here she was, a black woman whose federal judicial nomination by President Bill Clinton was held up for a year by Republicans. As president of the black lawyers association in Detroit, Roberts actively opposed the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of one of the right's judicial icons, former federal judge Robert H. Bork -- plenty of reason for retribution a decade later, Roberts said she was told.
Roberts was sent to Thomas by Damon Keith, a senior judge on the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Keith, a Thomas friend, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter. Keith talked Roberts up to Thomas: first black woman to be president of the state bar, managing partner in a major law firm, someone of integrity. Thomas agreed to see her.
Roberts changed her flight plans because of the Thomas meeting, arriving in Washington a day before her hearing. They spent 45 minutes to an hour together. He told her how he grew up listening to Motown artists and rattled off tunes by the Temptations, the Marvelettes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. "I was very comfortable with him, to my surprise," Roberts said.
About 15 or 20 minutes into the conversation, Thomas abruptly stopped, Roberts recalled. "I have spent longer talking to you than I talked to President [George H.W.] Bush when my name was submitted to the bench," he told Roberts. "To this day, I'm still not certain why or how I got this nomination."
Thomas said he would help. If Keith was vouching for her, that was good enough for him. "The Republicans should not be surprised that President Clinton would nominate a person to the bench who would oppose Bork," Thomas told Roberts. "If you can assure me that you can be fair, I'll make some phone calls."
Keith recalled Thomas phoning him and saying: "You can tell her she'll be confirmed. I've talked to Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott."
Lott, the Mississippi Republican who was the Senate majority leader at the time, said he had "a faint recollection" that Thomas might have called him, adding: "I would hope that he would feel free to call if he had some information about a nominee that would be helpful." Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a close Thomas friend, said the story "sounds familiar" but he can't recall details. On June 26, 1998, by unanimous consent, Roberts was confirmed by the Senate.
At conferences of black lawyers and judges, she has told the story of Thomas's involvement, sometimes drawing raised eyebrows and perplexed looks.
"He has, in his own way, helped me and others like me. And we're on the bench, and we're making decisions that may be very contrary to those he may make," Roberts reflected. Still, whenever Thomas's name comes up among her colleagues, "it's never good."
"He's a complicated person," she said, "very puzzling to me."