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Clarence Thomas says he worries respect for institutions is eroding

Justice Clarence Thomas in October. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
2 min

ATLANTA — Justice Clarence Thomas said Friday that the judiciary is threatened if people are unwilling to “live with outcomes we don’t agree with” and that recent events at the Supreme Court might be “one symptom of that.”

Thomas, speaking to judges and lawyers at the 11th Circuit Judicial Conference, did not speak directly about the leak of a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, a colossal breach of the court’s procedures.

But he referred a couple of times to the “unfortunate events” of the past week, and in a question-and-answer session led by a former clerk, he said he worried about declining respect for institutions and the rule of law.

“It bodes ill for a free society,” he said. It can’t be that institutions “give you only the outcome you want, or can be bullied” to do the same, he said.

For Thomas, avowed critic of Roe v. Wade, Mississippi abortion case a moment long awaited

The court’s longest-serving justice said he also worried about a “different attitude of the young” that might not show the same respect for the law as past generations did. “Recent events have shown this major change,” he said.

The leaked February draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and published by Politico, made the case for overturning Roe and the subsequent case that affirmed the constitutional right to obtain an abortion, Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who spoke to the same group Thursday, had said this week that the opinion was far from a final decision and announced an investigation of the leak, which has shaken a court known for keeping its deliberations private.

Chief Justice Roberts says Supreme Court leak won’t alter deliberations

In the friendly questioning, Thomas was not asked about his own most recent controversy. That involves his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, and her ties to the Trump White House and activism regarding challenges to the 2020 election results.

Thomas is the member of the court least likely to adhere to stare decisis, the principle of letting past decisions stand. In past cases, including Casey, he called for Roe to be overturned.

Over the past 30 years, conservative Supreme Court nominees testified about abortion rights during their Senate confirmation hearings. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

On Friday, he did not link his views to the current controversy over Roe but repeated that important decisions he thinks were wrongly decided should be corrected.

“We use stare decisis as a mantra when we don’t want to think,” Thomas said.

Thomas was raised in Georgia before he went north for college and law school, and he said he is delighted that he is the justice who is the point of contact at the Supreme Court for emergencies that arise from Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

“One of the things I had to learn in New England was bad manners,” he said.

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