The Washington Post

Clarence Thomas and Yale begin to repair relationship

It would hardly seem newsworthy that a Supreme Court justice was going to be the keynote speaker at a gathering of alumni of his elite law school.

Except when the justice is Clarence Thomas, and the elite law school is Yale.

“Strained” would not begin to describe the relationship between the New Haven, Conn., school and Thomas, Class of 1974. For years, the 63-year-old justice has avoided his alma mater, writing that it was a mistake for him to have attended the school and declining to have his portrait hung in its halls, as is the case with other notable graduates.

But Thomas returned to the school in December, teaching a class with a liberal law professor and speaking with members of the Federalist Society and the Black Law Students Association.

And in late June, just as the court is expected to release its opinion about the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care law, Thomas has agreed to be the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Yale Law School Association of Washington.

It is hard to overstate the estrangement between Thomas and Yale. In his 2007 autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” the justice was withering in his criticism of some of the professors and students he met in New Haven and said the law school’s affirmative action policies tainted his diploma.

“I’d learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much anyone denied it,” said Thomas, who was one of a handful of black students in his class.

He wrote that he considered transferring, perhaps to a Southern law school closer to his home town, Savannah, Ga.

After graduation, “as a symbol of my disillusionment, I peeled a fifteen-cent price sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale,” he wrote.

He added: “I never did change my mind about its value. Instead of hanging it on the wall of my Supreme Court office, I stored it in the basement of my Virginia home — with the sticker still on the frame.”

And Thomas felt a lack of support from the school during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Anita Hill, Class of 1980, accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him in the federal government.

Several Yale leaders before the current dean, Robert C. Post, have tried to repair relations.

The Washington Post noted in a 2004 article that former dean Anthony T. Kronman twice traveled to visit Thomas in Washington. On one occasion, Kronman brought a judicial robe embroidered with the Yale Law coat of arms as a gift.

Thomas accepted the robe but politely declined to have his portrait hung at the law school, a tradition Yale observes for its graduates who become justices.

Post was traveling and unavailable for comment, but Jan Conroy, Yale Law’s communications director, said Thomas’s December visit to Yale came about because the school learned that the justice was set to visit the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, where he volunteered as a law student.

Post invited Thomas to the law school, where he met with students, mingled with faculty members at a reception and attended a private dinner.

“He just seemed to enjoy himself immensely,” Conroy said.

When the Washington alumni contacted Post about getting Thomas to speak at their dinner, Conroy said, Post called Thomas and the justice agreed.

The other Yalies on the court — Samuel A. Alito Jr., Class of ’75, and Sonia Sotomayor, Class of 1979 — have returned to the school since joining the court.

Still unresolved, Conroy said, is the question of Thomas’s portrait. “We’d, of course, be delighted,” she said.

Neither Alito nor Sotomayor have portraits hung either.

Conroy said the law school is running a little behind on the portrait tradition.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” she said.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Republicans debated Saturday night. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Get caught up on the race.
Highlights from Saturday's GOP debate
Except for an eminent domain attack from Bush, Trump largely avoided strikes from other candidates.

Christie went after Rubio for never having been a chief executive and for relying on talking points.

Carson tried to answer a question on Obamacare by lamenting that he hadn't been asked an earlier question about North Korea.
The GOP debate in 3 minutes
Play Video
We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they're booing me? I don't want their money!
Donald Trump, after the debate crowd at St. Anselm's College booed him for telling Jeb Bush to be "quiet."
Play Video
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She's planning to head Sunday to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
55% 38%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.