The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Justice Clarence Thomas called himself a termite. It fits.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Pool/AP)

At a speaking engagement last month, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas shed light on who he is. During his last year at Yale Law School, he recalled, he was having difficulty finding a job and someone was giving him grief about it — being a “jerk,” as he put it.

So, Thomas had to put those concerns to rest.

“I said, ‘You will always remember me. I am the termite in your basement. … I will be there,” Thomas recalled. “They can go and have spring break, they can go backpack in Europe,” Thomas said. “I am that termite, working away.”

His story drew a mix of soft gasps and uncertain laughter among the assembled guests at the Old Parkland Conference in Dallas on May 13. Thomas was no stranger to the group. The occasion was a reprisal of the old Fairmont Conference for Black conservatives, organized by economist Thomas Sowell, that had been held in San Francisco in 1980.

Thomas, then an aide to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) had attended. He’d been interviewed by journalist Juan Williams, a Washington Post op-ed columnist at the time. The column caught the eye of the incoming Reagan administration, on the lookout for right-thinking Blacks to run interference on controversial racial policies.

Thomas ended up at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and brought in Anita Hill. The rest, as they say, is history.

Still, even with Thomas in the public eye for the past 40 years — 30 of them on the Supreme Court — the specter of him operating as a self-described termite can be a bit unsettling. The conference in Dallas was held just after the leak of the draft of the Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal, leading to much discussion about the structural integrity of America’s most essential institutions.

Clarence Thomas says Supreme Court leak has eroded trust in institution

Termites do not strengthen structures. They destroy them. A colony that goes undetected long enough can bring a house down on top of you.

There is a C-SPAN video of the event. I hope people look at it. He tells the story in the last minute of the hour-long program. Look at his facial expression. He is quite smug. Thomas graduated from Yale Law in 1974. And now, 48 years later, at age 74, he’s still got it out for that nest of Ivy Leaguers. “I was not a Yalie,” he said. “I am from Georgia ... regular people. I did not quite fit in.”

And now he has more former law clerks working as judges than any other judge. His kids, he calls them. The colony.

Just a few weeks after the conference, the actual ruling on Roe v. Wade was released. Thomas could not wait to announce the next set of rights likely to be attacked. He included those in the concurrence he wrote: access to contraception, no prohibitions on gay sex. Maybe even affirmative action, which he claimed stigmatized Blacks at Yale.

Roe v. Wade overturned

The Fairmont Conference was called New Alternatives, which was the conservatives’ way of framing conversations to keep the peace in an increasingly uncivil society. It didn’t work, and the incivility now threatens to transform the nation.

There had been no follow-up conference — until the one last month.

“I think we are in danger of destroying the institutions that are required for a free society,” Thomas said. “You cannot have a free society without a stable legal system. … Look where we are. Where now that trust, that belief is gone forever. When you lose that trust, especially in the institution that I am in, it changes the institution fundamentally.”

During a separate interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in 2007, Thomas said he had been become so angry over racism, especially in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, that he “asked God to take hatred out of my heart.”

Lamb asked Thomas when he was able to let go of the hatred.

Thomas said in 1986, when he met his wife, Virginia, who is White. “I think that was — she was a gift from God to me,” he said.

“She’s a good person — positive outlook — and just wanted to make the country — she wanted freedom and to fight for it, and that people should be treated as individuals,” Thomas said.

Now investigators are looking into Ginni Thomas’s relationship with people who were acting as political termites for former president Donald Trump as he tried to thwart the peaceful transfer of power following his failed reelection bid.

At the conference in Dallas, Thomas said he made a point of never attacking anyone personally in his legal opinions, the way some newspaper columnists do.

Thomas told the audience, “I would resign as judge if I did my job as poorly as the news media does.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court said it would not hear a case challenging the landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, which helps shield media organizations from libel claims filed by public officials.

Thomas, however, dissented in part, saying he’d still like to revisit the “actual malice” standard, writing, “This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups ‘to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity.’”

Like a termite, always working. And loving every bite.

“It really is good to be me,” Thomas told the conference, before bursting into hearty laughter.