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Justice Thomas defends the Supreme Court’s independence and warns of ‘destroying our institutions’

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Thursday.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Thursday. (Robert Franklin/AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Justice Clarence Thomas defended the independence of the Supreme Court on Thursday and warned against "destroying our institutions because they don't give us what we want, when we want it."

Thomas, the longest serving justice, acknowledged that the high court has its flaws, comparing it to a “car with three wheels” that somehow still works. But he said the justices are not ruling based on “personal preferences” and suggested that the nation’s leaders should not “allow others to manipulate our institutions when we don’t get the outcome that we like.”

The justice’s remarks came during a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in which he talked about traveling by RV in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee with his wife, Ginni. Thomas reflected on his childhood in the segregated South and his religious faith. He also alluded several times to the political polarization in the United States.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re really good at finding something that separates us,” Thomas told the crowd of more than 800 students and faculty gathered at the school’s performing arts center.

Thomas is the latest justice to add his voice to the mix and publicly come to the court’s defense in the face of growing criticism that the nine justices are merely politicians in robes.

“I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference. So if they think you are antiabortion or something personally, they think that’s the way you always will come out. They think you’re for this or for that. They think you become like a politician,” Thomas said in response to a question about public misconceptions of the court.

“That’s a problem. You’re going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions.”

In recent weeks, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, during a book tour, has emphasized that he and his colleagues are not “junior league” politicians. Last week, the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, told a crowd in Kentucky that justices are not a “bunch of partisan hacks” and that their divisions are based on competing judicial philosophies, not partisanship.

Thomas’s speech comes as the Supreme Court is planning to return to the courtroom next month to conduct arguments in person for the first time since March 2020 when the building was shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. All nine justices are vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the court, and have been meeting together for their private conferences.

Barrett moves Supreme Court to the right, but cautiously

The justices have agreed to take up a battle over a New York gun-control law and will also hear a case involving Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks. Opponents of abortion are asking the court to use the case to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees a right to abortion before viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.

And even during its traditional summer recess, the justices have continued to issue rulings, including emergency orders overturning pandemic-related restrictions, telling the executive branch it must reinstate a Trump-era immigration policy and refusing to block a Texas ban on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

During his visit to Notre Dame, Thomas provided some insight into how he approaches his role on the bench. When asked whether the attorneys presenting at oral argument ever change his mind, Thomas said, “almost never,” prompting laughter from the audience.

Justices say Supreme Court split by philosophical — not partisan — differences, but timing works against them

For years, Thomas was known for his reticence from the bench and had asked few questions during argument. But during the teleconference hearings, the justices took turns asking questions by seniority and Thomas was an active questioner.

Thomas said Thursday that the real work is in the written briefs submitted before an argument. He described an argument to the court that was a detriment to the case, and resulted in the justices unanimously reversing after hearing from the lawyer.

“Sometimes, just shut up and sit down,” he said.

Thomas was also asked whether the legal questions he confronts on the bench ever conflict with his Catholic faith. Without giving examples, Thomas said, “There are some things that conflict very strongly with my personal opinion, my policy preferences, and those were very, very hard, particularly early on.”

“I don’t do a lot of hand wringing in my opinions and tell people, ‘oh, I’m really sad.’ That’s not the role of a judge. You do your job and you go cry alone.”

Thomas was warmly received by hundreds of students and faculty. At the end of his talk, a group of three protesters erupted into chants of “I still believe Anita Hill,” a reference to his contentious 1991 confirmation hearings that included Hill’s allegations that he verbally harassed her.

The protesters were swiftly escorted out of the auditorium, prompting another standing ovation for Thomas.

During his more than hour-long presentation Thursday, Thomas did not directly address proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court. President Biden has created a commission to consider structural changes after Republican lawmakers rushed to confirm Barrett after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just before the 2020 election.

But Thomas twice cautioned that “we should be really, really careful” about “destroying our institutions.” He went on to quote his late grandfather as saying, “After you’ve done that, and now what? What’s your next step?”

Marimow reported from Washington.