Former students and faculty of Yale Law School have always been well represented among America's legal elite -- as any visitor to the New Haven, Conn., institution can see. Proudly displayed on its walls are portraits of five past justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: William H. Taft, William O. Douglas, Byron R. White, Abe Fortas and Potter Stewart.
But one face is conspicuously absent: that of current Justice Clarence Thomas, Yale Law Class of 1974. According to people familiar with the situation, that was Thomas's choice. The vacant place of honor is the justice's silent protest against what he still considers Yale's failure to back him against Anita Hill, a Yale alumna, during his bitter 1991 confirmation hearings, these sources said.
As such, it is one of several subtle but significant signs that Thomas's scars remain.
"I think Clarence's feelings about the law school all come from the confirmation," said Guido Calabresi, a federal appeals court judge who served as Yale's dean during the hearings. "I think he expected the school to rush to support him as a distinguished graduate being nominated to the Supreme Court. But that didn't happen."
Two former Supreme Court law clerks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their confidential relationships with Thomas, confirmed Calabresi's view.
They said that, in chambers, the justice often laid out his bill of particulars against Yale -- noting that some professors testified against him and that Calabresi, who initially supported Thomas's confirmation, later declared that he thought Thomas and Hill were both telling the truth as they saw it.
One former clerk recalled a conversation in which the justice remarked: "I don't see why I should allow them to put my picture up, given how they've treated me."
Thomas declined to comment for this article. But he did tell students at Ohio's Ashland University in 1999 that he "had some fundamental disagreements with Yale. . . . So I don't consider myself particularly close to Yale Law School."
Thomas has noted that he felt rejected by liberal elites at the school. In numerous speeches, he has said his Yale law degree did not help him get coveted job offers, and he still keeps a stack of rejection letters from law firms. "I couldn't get a job out of Yale Law School," he once said, adding, "I ought to send them that degree back, too, while I'm at it."
In 1997, Thomas learned that a Supreme Court law clerk had copies of a bumper sticker reading, "Save America: Close Yale Law School." Thomas requested and received some of the stickers -- and put one on display in his chambers, according to two former clerks.
Other current members of the court regularly visit their old law school campuses for teaching and speaking engagements, and are welcomed as returning heroes. But Thomas has not been to Yale in his 13 years on the court.
Normally, the initiative for commissioning a portrait of a distinguished Yalie comes from friends and admirers willing to pay for the job. In the case of a Supreme Court justice, the school will automatically agree to display the painting, Yale Law officials said.
Thomas supporters tentatively approached Anthony T. Kronman shortly after Kronman replaced Calabresi as dean in 1994. Kronman twice traveled to speak with Thomas in Washington. On one occasion, Kronman brought a judicial robe embroidered with the Yale Law coat of arms as a gift, according to three people with firsthand knowledge of the visit.
Thomas accepted the robe. But he politely declined to have his picture hang at the law school -- and Kronman eventually dropped the matter.
Kronman's term as dean ended this year. In an interview, he called the lack of a Thomas portrait "a disappointment," adding, "I continue to hope that at some point in the future, preferably sooner rather than later, a portrait of Justice Thomas will be commissioned and hung."
Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.