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."
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.
Their connection made an impression on Thomas, who told other clerks that he wanted to write court opinions that "Steve's mother" could understand.
Thomas, with his penchant for conversation and personal connection, forges closer bonds with his clerks than most justices, according to former clerks and other court employees. Thomas's clerks, in turn, are loyal to him.
In interviews, 12 former Thomas clerks explained how they operate. They each take a portion of the 80 or so cases that come before the court every term. They then develop detailed memos on each case, drawing on the facts in the briefs filed. Thomas and his clerks discuss the memos as oral arguments approach.
The lead clerk on a case initiates the discussion, which opens up to a broader debate among the clerks. The discussions can last for hours and sometimes get heated. Thomas interjects, but he often allows his clerks to duke it out.
"The purpose of the exercise is to bat around ideas -- the more the merrier," said Chris Landau, who clerked for Thomas during the 1991-92 term and is now a partner at Kirkland & Ellis.
From that discussion, Thomas develops a tentative position. The lead clerk then writes another memo for Thomas to take to oral arguments, along with a few questions -- which he almost never asks.
Shortly after oral arguments, the nine justices meet alone in their oak-paneled conference room to decide the cases. Sitting in assigned seats around a long, rectangular table, they present their views in descending order of seniority. After a tentative vote, the senior justice in the majority makes the assignment for writing opinions.
"If you're drafting on behalf of the conference, you try to capture the consensus of the conference," Thomas said several years ago during a question-and-answer session with students at Ashland. "You're writing on behalf of the court, not just yourself."
When Thomas is assigned an opinion or when he writes a dissent or a concurrence, a clerk often produces the first draft, which Thomas then edits. Often, he works from home, as do other justices. Thomas has a kneeler in his home office, and before writing opinions, he sometimes opens a prayer book, kneels and prays, according to a family friend.
"I don't want to think that someone who judges something important about me or my country is having fun doing it," Thomas once said. "I think to the extent to which you get any degree of satisfaction is knowing that you've lived up to your oath as best you could. The rest of the time, it's almost as though you go home and try to survive the experience of judging."