A Conversation with the Justice Clarence Thomas

A Conversation with the Justice Clarence Thomas

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>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington D.C.>>Good afternoon. Justice Thomas, who is
in the room downstairs, distinguished guest
and colleagues, thank you for joining the
law Library of Congress and the United States
Supreme Court today for the 2018 Supreme Court
Fellows Program annual lecture. My name is Jane Sanchez and
I have the honor of serving as the 25th Law Librarian
of Congress. A little bit about the library. The law library serves as the
nation’s custodian of a legal and legislative collection
of nearly 3 million items from all countries and
legal systems of the world. Our foreign law specialists
are a diverse group of foreign trained attorneys who
provide information and analysis on over 270 jurisdictions
in the world. Our skilled law library staff,
both American trained attorneys and law librarians also
provide research assistance and reference services on U.S.
federal and state legal issues. While our collections
and our expertise reach across all points of the globe, for today’s event
we’ve partnered with our next-door neighbor, who happens to be the
highest court in the country. By the way, they are
pretty good neighbors. They’re quiet and they keep
to themselves pretty much. This afternoon we are pleased
to be able to collaborate with the Supreme Court as
they celebrate their 45th year of the Fellows Program. Please note that today’s
program is being live-streamed on the Library of Congress
YouTube channel, so all sound, images and remarks will
be captured on video. Please take a moment to silence
your cell phones and refrain from taking photos on any
devices throughout the event. For that we would thank you. At this time, I would like
to invite to the stage, Jeffrey P. Minear,
executive director of the Supreme Court
Fellows Program and counselor to the Chief Justice
of the United States. Thank you. [Applause]>>JEFFREY MINEAR: Thank you,
Jane, for the warm introduction. And thanks to you and the
law Library of Congress for your partnership
with the Fellows Program in sponsoring this
afternoon’s event. Since its creation in 1832
when John Marshall was serving as Chief Justice, the law
library has been an important resource and steady
friend of the court. We could not ask for
a better neighbor than the largest law
library in the world, and they’re pretty quiet too. Let me say a word about the
Supreme Court Fellows Program and my capacity as its
executive director. Each year the Supreme Court
fellows commission made up of judges and other
legal leaders appointed by the Chief Justice selects
four talented professionals to spend a year within the
federal judiciary participating in court administration
while engaging in research and other enrichment
opportunities. This afternoon’s event is the
public component of two days of activities in which we
celebrate our current Supreme Court fellows and
bring together 45 years of Fellows Program alumni. Over the course of today and tomorrow we’ll
select next year’s fellows from the superb finalists
with us this afternoon. I understand we have
many law students with us in the audience today,
as well as law clerks from several courts in the
federal and state systems. If you have an interest in how federal courts work I
hope you will take time to learn about the Fellows Program and consider applying
in a future year. I invite you to go to website
fellows .supreme Court.gov. Applications for the 2020
class will be due in November. But before you set to
work on your applications, we have a great feature
this afternoon. We have as our distinguished
guest the 105th justice of the Supreme Court
of the United States, the Honorable Clarence
Thomas, who has served on the court since 1991. Ten years ago Justice Thomas
published his best-selling autobiography, “my
grandfather’s son.” It shared in his own words
his remarkable American story. I commend it to anyone
seeking a compelling read. We have the book
available for purchase here and at the Supreme
Court gift shop. We are fortunate to have
with us also Gregory Maggs to moderate today’s
conversation. When we planned this
program, Greg was a professor at George Washington
University Law School, but in the past month he’s
received his judicial commission as a judge of the
United States court of appeals for the Armed Forces. Judge Maggs was a law clerk
to Justice Thomas in 1991 and before that to
justice Anthony Kennedy. Please join me in welcome
Justice Thomas and Judge Maggs. [Applause]>>GREGORY MAGGS: Do
you feel comfortable?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: No. This is not the most
suitable position for introverts, but you can ask. We like to be in the
shadows someplace.>>GREGORY MAGGS: They’re
having a great time… [ Laughter ]>>CLARENCE THOMAS: It
was just fine back there. You don’t have anything to do? [ Laughter ] Oh, my goodness! Sorry y’all are dragging
yourselves out on this day.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Mr. Minear
mentioned the 10th anniversary of the publication of your
book “my grandfather’s son.”>>CLARENCE THOMAS: I
had forgotten about that.>>GREGORY MAGGS: I
thought I would start by asking you questions
ant the book.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: So
you’re Judge Maggs now.>>GREGORY MAGGS: About a week.>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
I think that’s great. [ Laughter ]>>CLARENCE THOMAS: Just
changing the subject. [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS: Yeah. Justice, you start out the book
when you’re nine years old. Why is that the place to
start your autobiography?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You know,
I had the manuscript to that and Terry Teachott,
my final editor, just a phenomenal human being
and editor and musician. And he understood. He dug deep into the manuscript
and he said, you know, you have a great title. I had picked out the title
to “My Grandfather’s Son,” but he said you have to explain
the title within the first page or two, and he said, I
found the explanation buried in your manuscript. And the line is “I
was nine years old when I met my father
q. ” And he said, most people wouldn’t
think of that. Because ultimately my
grandfather is my father. So I’m my grandfather’s
son, not my father’s son. So that was my first encounter
that I remember with my father. And so that’s why I
started it out there, to explain why I was
my grandfather’s son.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Life
didn’t start out too easy. You mention in the book
you grew up in Pinpoint, and then in a home
that didn’t have water, didn’t have electricity. When the house burned
down you moved to Savannah and conditions got worse. I think you write
that in the winter of 1995 you remember
being hungry.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: 1955. I was doing fine in 1995. [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS: 1955, you
were hungry without knowing when you would eat and
cold without knowing when you would be warm.>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
That’s a horrible feeling. But, you know, today we kind
of — I just get worn down. I was with a young woman
who happened to be black in Kansas recently, and she said
something really interesting. She said, I’m really
tired of having to play the role of being black. I just want to go to school. And I think we — at some point
we’re going to be fatigued with everybody being a victim. When I was a kid, there
were tons of people who were in really bad circumstances. My grandfather would not
let us wallow in that. And as you could tell throughout
this book, he’s my hero. He is the single greatest
human being I have ever met. Nine months of education, but he
never saw himself as a victim. He used to say he was
a motherless child. He never knew his father. His mother died when he was
seven or eight years old. Of course, they didn’t have
birth certificates then, so he never knew
quite how old he was. And then he was raised
by his grandmother, who was a freed slave. Then she dies and then he
lives with an uncle who has 12 or 13 kids and who
was a hard man. And yet he never complained. And he always said — he would
have this saying “When you want to whine or something… He said, “you know, you have
to play the hand you’re dealt.” This those days blacks
played big Whigs a lot. You have to play the
hand you’re dealt. If you’re dealt a bad hand,
you still have to play it. When we whine about things — if you look at the
bust in my office, my wonderful wife had made for
me when I went on the court, his favorite quote
was “old man” can’t “is dead, I helped bury him. I don’t know if you saw
the movie” The Help .” That’s my family. We were the help. My mother maid $10 a week,
$5 more if you had car fare. My mother was a maid. My grandmother had been a maid. Cousin Bea was a maid. Cousin Doshier was a maid. All of them were maids. And they were the help. And yet they never
ever complained. And life was hard. I mean, the things that
we consider hard today — I had some college students ask
me a few years back how would I explain, you know,
talk to them now that the economy had
taken a down turn? And I said… And I’m looking at
them and I said, how many of you don’t
have cell phones? Of course, they all
had cell phones. How many of you don’t
have a computer? They all had computers. How many of you don’t
have a car? I think all but one had a car. I said, you’re so far above the
poverty line, and when I was in school, you were
at the poverty line. You’re making 90 cents an hour,
you had no money, no shoes. You had like boots
and things like that. And you didn’t worry about it. Because virtually
everybody was there. And so when the economy
took a down turn, when you’re on the floor, there isn’t a whole
lot further you can go. And for them, they’re losing from up here to maybe
midway down. So I really had no
connection with them. But my further point… [ Laughter ] I didn’t have a radio. I didn’t have a telephone. And they’re complaining. And I certainly didn’t
have a car. But it wasn’t a problem. Because you had your dreams. You had your energy. You had more than the
people you grew up around. I grew up around a world
of total illiteracy. That’s the beauty. I’m in the Library of Congress. Total illiteracy. But the thing they had was hope that the next generation
would learn how to read. They knew how important
it was for me. So my grandfather
wouldn’t let me take — I was a really good athlete too. I don’t like to say that because
then people want you to kind of show that you
were a great athlete. And it’s kind of too
late in the day now. [ Laughter ] But the — he would not give
us time off to play sports. We worked on the oil
truck or on the farm. But if it had to do with the
library, you could do it. So at night he would let me
go to the Carnegie Library where I started going
in the summer of 1955 for the noble reason that summer
of ’55, I was seven years old and we just moved into
this little tenement on the east side,
and on Saturday, they gave you cookies and juice. So I went for the very
high-minded reason of getting cookies and juice. And when you live in these
neighborhoods, cookies and juice are a real treat. Along the way, they
introduce you to Dr. Seuss. And if I hear “see spot
run” one more time… But it was wonderful. And you got cookies and juice. But it gave me this image of the
library as this place to learn, and it became a haven. So I walked in here. I said, look where I am! I come from a world of
illiteracy, treasured learning, and I get to be in a place of
learning with all the books and people who are literate. So that’s a long way of saying
I was very fortunate to grow up around people who saw
beyond their circumstances and who refused to be limited by
those circumstances or to wallow in the sort of victim status
of their circumstances.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Tell me
more about your grandfather. He was a very strict man. Was he unfair?>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
Oh, God no, no, no. People ask sometimes about
the nuns and my grandfather. Because in those days you
had corporeal punishment. They said, did you get beatings? Yeah, but not as
many as I deserved. And my grandfather, whenever
he gave you one that he found out was unfair, that you didn’t
deserve at that time, he said, that’s what you got away with. And then you couldn’t
— what do you say? Because you knew you
got away with stuff. And every one of us knew… oh, boy, I’m glad he
didn’t get me on that one. But, no, my grandfather was a
hard man but not a harsh man. Life was hard. I mean, anybody in this
room who grew up in that environment,
that is a hard life. Where you have to figure out
how you’re going to put a meal on the table, where you — there’s a very fine
line between the — between you not being able to
eat today and being able to eat. And the gratitude — we
always said grace before and after meal.. We’re Catholic. And he would always be grateful
— and this is almost — this is the old porcelain
top table. My grandfather sat here. I always sat facing him. I don’t know why I
got that position, where he would just
stare at you. Oh, my God, help me! And my grandmother sat here and my brother sat
here at a small table. And he would always say, we
are grateful that we have food on our table, clothes on our
back and a roof over our head. And it doesn’t get
much better than that. So he was never unfair. He was very generous. What he would do is — let’s say, he would make us
work to produce something. Then he would say, We
are able to provide for others because we work. So we’re able to give them
corn or beans or peas or syrup or sugarcanes or
fruit, because we work. We were able to give them meat
because we raised the hogs. What he taught us we had
an obligation to do well so that we could do good. Particularly for others. So I could not call that fair. I think my grand mather
was probably one of the — grandfather was one of the most
compassionate people I’ve known, because he always
told us the truth. He always told us the
truth about life and he — so I asked my broth er,
my brother, unfortunately, died 18 years ago jogging. He was a year and four months
younger and he and I grew up with my grandparents. And I asked him when we were
in our 40s, we were very close, and I said, do you think my —
my grandfather, we went to live with him in ’55, said, “I will
never tell you to do as I say. I will always tell
you to do as I do. Watch me.” And so I asked my
brother years later, after my grandfather was long
gone, was he ever a hypocrite? And my brother said,
absolutely not. That he lived up to that,
to think about that. Would you set yourself
up as the model and the example to
your own children? And you say, do as I do. Watch me every day. And once — and we watched it. Because he would never
let us out of his sight. And when he did let you out of
his sight, it was with the nuns. Or I could get away
from him to the library. I loved the library. You know, the — we
take it for granted now because we have all these
computers now and all that stuff, but just think of
yourself coming from a house with no books and you get
to walk into this world and have encyclopedia Americana,
encyclopedia Britanica, it had Wagner and all
sorts of fiction, you know, it had magazines Life,
Time, all the newspapers. It was a smorgasbord
every time you walked in. And you had the reference
library and it would introduce
you to new things. Then they introduce you
to National Geographic, so you were all over the world. This is all in Savannah,
Georgia. This is a world of segregation, so it gave you this
window to everything else. It gave you a window
beyond Georgia. And the nuns encouraged it,
the librarians encouraged it. So I had an opportunity some
years ago to go back and write and thank all the librarians,
and most recently I ran into a lady in Savannah,
an elderly white lady, because I was among
the early kids who went to the Savannah Public Library,
desegregated, and I was kind of a nuisance there
because I kept showing up. It was like I was
“Where’s Waldo?” Where’s Clarence? He’s got to be here someplace. And it’s time to get
away from my grandfather, and it was just this
amazing world. And I ran into this
elderly white lady and she started crying. And she said, I helped you at
the Savannah Public Library. I said, oh, my gosh… it was really kind of emotional because I remember
how scared I was. You have to cross in
those days a lot of lines, but going to the library
was worth doing then. Anyway, that’s the library.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Tell me more
about your Catholic education. And your decision
to go to seminary.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You
know, I look back — I used to ask Justice
Scalia about that. He thought it was
interesting we were so similar. He would say, Clarence… he said, my parents, my father
was a romance literature professor, my mother
was a teacher, so I know how I got here. How did you get here? And why are we at
the same place? Why do we have the
same set of beliefs? And I think the beauty
of having gone to parochial schools was
they taught us how to — there was a right way to think
about things, that we have to be honest with
ourselves, honest about math, honest about physics,
honest about chemistry, that you couldn’t cheat when
you did your Latin translations or German or French, because I
had all those in high school. And so I was talking recently
with someone and he said, it was your formation, that there was always a
right way to do things. There was an honest
way to do things. And the progression is, I
became Catholic when I went to the second grade in 1955,
sister Rosa, a wonderful person. At any rate, I became
an altar boy and the progression is
you become an altar boy and if you progress as an
altar boy you consider whether or not you have a vocation. In those days you went
to a minor seminary. In 1964 I decided I thought
I had a vocation, so I was 15 and then following year when
I was 16 I went to seminary. The difficulty was, again, things hadn’t been
desegregated yelt. So you were, again,
drossing racial barriers, — crossing racial barriers,
so you had that challenge. Even that was not nearly
as difficult as going to school in New England. No one — there were
a few jerks. We all have those. But beyond that, the
school was excellent. The people were fair to me. It was very, very
challenging academically. And also I got to — I like to
say I finished in the top ten of my high school class, but because there were
only nine of us… [ Laughter ] You have to take these
things when you get them. That would be the last time
I would be able to say that.>>GREGORY MAGGS: What about
your decision to leave seminary?>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
That was 1968. Any of us who were around
in 1968, it was 1968. The wheels were coming off
the wagons in a lot of ways. And the little Catholic kid
from the rather insular world of Savannah suddenly was reading
and it was a long, hot — Dr. King was assassinated and
we became quite race conscious, which problematic sides
and has good sides. And like a lot of us, went
from being nice Catholic kid to the angry black kid. And that was 1968. So then I returned home and was
greeted with my grandfather, who told me that if
I’m going to do that, then I need to find
another place to live. So he kicked me out of the
house and I was on my own. I was 19 years old. May 1968.>>GREGORY MAGGS: But
you went to Holy Cross?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: I
know there’s all this myth about how — people love to come
up with narratives and myths. They should read or something. At any rate, my chemistry
teacher asked the high school classmate of mine to
send me an application. I had ranked very high
in my class in seminary, first year of college, and
I just simply filled it out and I transferred to Holy Cross. I was accepted almost
immediately and transferred to Holy Cross in 1968. Pi wasn’t going to go
because I was tired of being the only black
kid or one or two or three. I was going to go
to Savannah State, but then when my grandfather
disinvited me from living in his house, I thought it
might not be a good idea to hang around. So I just… I hadn’t thought about
any other schools. So I had been accepted to Holy
Cross, so got on the train and went to Holy Cross. You can see the planning I did. I say to people, my whole
life has been providential because I certainly didn’t
know what was going on.>>GREGORY MAGGS: In
your book, Justice, you talk about being a radical at Holy Cross, about
being angry. Did you feel you were
treated unfairly?>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
At Holy Cross? No, no, I was just
mad at the world. It was 1968. I was angry. I really didn’t need a
logical reason to be angry. I was angry about things
that happened in the past. I was angry about things that
were going to happen in future. If you said “good
morning” to me I was angry. If you didn’t say “good
morning,” I was angry. And people sort of
exploited that. And, you know, I was — I
remember going to Harvard Square in April of 19 — April 15,
1970, and we were pretty upset. You know, I couldn’t explain
to myself why I just did that. All night we were rioting. And I got back home, got
back to Holy Cross and that’s when I made a promise to
God that I would never — that if he took anger
out of my heart, I would never do that again. I would never let
anger control my life. That was the morning
of April 16, 1970. And I’ve attempted
to live up to that.>>GREGORY MAGGS: What
made you choose law?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: It’s
kind of the far scump effect. How do I know? I was going to to be a priest. When you have a vocation,
you think the belief of God is calling you. That’s the only dream I’ve
ever had was to be a priest. I don’t think it ever
quite leaves you. When I went off to Holy Cross, I was in a little
bit of a tailspin. I was looking for the next
call, what am I called to do? So I decided that God
would call me to go to Savannah and to help out. And one way to do
that was to be in law. And so I went to law school
to return to Savannah. If you noticed, I never
really worked at a law firm. I worked at a small firm in
Savannah, Georgia, in the summer between second and third year
of law school because I wanted to return to Savannah. For reasons that I’m
not going to get into, that job did not live
up to my expectations. Now I’ve got a wife — today
is my son’s 45th birthday, so he was a little kid. And I had a wife and
child and student loans. And now I need a job,
because I’m not going back to the situation that I don’t
think is right in Savannah. And I couldn’t get a job
in Savannah, Georgia. That’s literally it. I couldn’t get a job
in Atlanta, Georgia. I couldn’t get a
job in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t get
a job in New York. And I couldn’t get a job in LA. I struck out every
place I could. So I wound up in
Jefferson City, Missouri. And because they
didn’t give me a job in Atlanta is the reason
I wound up on the court. So it’s their fault. [ Laughter ] Otherwise I would be comfortably
a tax lawyer or something.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Tell me
about your years at Yale.>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
What about it?>>GREGORY MAGGS: Do
you remember them? [ Laughter ]>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You know, I
think that had — that was ages.>>GREGORY MAGGS: No, no, no… [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS: That
was a slight on Yale.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You can
see I’ve always enjoyed my law clerks, and we enjoyed
teaching together. We have had — we’ve been
teaching together six or seven years at GW Law
School and had a total blast. It’s a good thing they
don’t really pay us for it. You’re not going to get paid
now because you’re going to be adjunct like
the rest of us. You know, Yale was the
perfect school for me. I’ve had my complaints
for reasons after Yale, but Yale showed me
where I needed to be. If I had — if I went back to Yale I would go
differently today. I wouldn’t go with all these
burdens of anger and bitterness and self-restrictions
and constraint. I would spend a lot of time
in the sterling Library, which I loved being in. I would spend a lot of time
doing the things that I like. I would be like that
young kid at KU. I just want to go to school. I just want to be a kid. I like chamber music. I’d go to that. I like debates. I like recitals. You know, I’m reading a
book now on the Plantagents. Keagan was at Yale. I should have gone
to those lectures, whether it’s Greek
history or myth or wars. The Peloponnesian
wars or something. I loved debates. I loved philosophy. And it was all there. I could go to Off
Broadway plays. I didn’t go to anything
because I was mad at the world. I was self-restricted
in this place that offered all
these opportunities. The law school was good for me because it showed me how
much work I needed to do, to do what I wanted to do. How much I needed to learn
and a question I asked myself when I left was: Are you
willing to do the work? Are you willing to
dedicate yourself to learning all you need? And so I would have to say in
retrospect, it was small enough, it was academically
challenging, it was interesting, the professors were fair to me. It wasn’t the best choice
as far as being able to distinguish yourself,
because of the grading system. But I can’t say — I can’t look
back and offer any complaints. I know in the past I’ve
not said pleasant things, but that would have to do
with some other reactions.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Let’s move
forward to confirmation process. A third of your book has to
do with confirmation process. That’s been 27 years or so. How was your view
of being confirmed and the politics involved? How is all that —
have you changed a bit?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You know, I
think it’s sort of like surgery, the only minor surgery
is on the other guy. I don’t think the process
is what it ought to be. I think that these
are serious jobs and I think they
should be serious. I don’t think they
should become spectacle. This is not the Roman coliseum. We’re not glad yaiters. I think we’re going to lose
some of our best people who choose not to go
through the ordeal. They don’t want to have to fight
the lion in order to be a judge or to be in government. And I think it’s our own fault
for allowing this to happen. I was confirmed five
times in ten years. And it got increasingly worse. And I think that we are going to at some point have the
leadership we deserve. Because we allow the
selection process to get out of our control and
to have very little to do with selecting the
kind of people we need. Think about it. You went through confirmation. And yours wasn’t
particularly controversial, but it was an ordeal. And what if it was embittered? And I think a lot of
people have second thoughts. I can’t tell you how many
people I know who in the middle of it said “what
was I thinking?” I think that’s unfortunate. I think the country is going to
lose something because of that. So, you know, I don’t
have bitter feelings or anything like that. I don’t have strong reactions. But I think I’m sober in my
judgment of it and I think a lot of the difficulties are
irrelevant to the jobs. Think about it. How many people, for
example, who have done the job of judging, who actually
talk about judges, it’s usually the people doing
the most talking have never judged a single case. I find it absolutely
fascinating. A lot of the commentary
has nothing to do with the job itself. I found when I got
to the D.C. Circuit, I found that job
absolutely fabulous. The people there were fabulous. And to the Supreme Court, after going through
all those difficulties, the members of the court
were just wonderful people. To a person, it was a
fabulous place to work. You were there. It was a lot of work. It was very difficult
first term, but in retrospect it was an
exciting time, just the ideas and learning, and everybody
there made it as decent a place as it could possibly be. So the Court itself is quite
different from the ordeal. It’s almost the opposite of the
or deal it took to get there.>>GREGORY MAGGS: What are
the best and worst things about being a Supreme
Court justice?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: The
best I think would have to be interacting with my
kids as they clerk to going through life, watching you all. It’s just — that’s
the best part. I would have to say, too, my
wife is now a former law clerk. She is emeritus. We gave her honorary
law clerk degree. But watching her… my wife was 34 years old
when I got to the court. Watching her enjoy the clerks
and the kids, it is such a joy. I remember when Nicholas
was born. Now what is he doing?>>GREGORY MAGGS:
Graduate school.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: Yeah. So, watching all of that,
it’s just fantastic. And then when Janice got
married, you know, it’s just — so that’s the best part. The worst part is the
loss of anonymity. I don’t like the public part. But that’s a part of the deal. I’m not going to complain
about it, but I just — those of you who are introverts,
you know what I’m talking about. We prefer — it’s
sort of like I said to my clerks who
were introverts. Introverts of the world unite. And then they said, but do
we have to go to meetings? [ Laughter ] So I read Susan Cane’s
book “quiet,” which I think is the best book. For those of us who
are introverts, that’s the hard part,
the public part. You know what, I
could add to that. It’s not a complaint. All of this is a
part of the deal. I have no complaints. I don’t like the myth-making
around the Court and who we are. There’s a real decided
difference between what is said about what goes on in
judging and the Court and what actually happens. There’s the real world and
there’s the myth of that world. We don’t have the time, the
energy or the ink or the bits or bites or whatever they
call that to change to engage in that narrative battle. We have work to do. We have to write opinions. I’ve been around a lot of
judges, whether you agree with them or not, they
actually put the work in. It’s a wonderful
world to work in. Where you actually have
to write out your opinions and think things through
and have arguments and go through all the statutes and go through all the constitutional
provisions and go through all the rules of statutory interpretation
or construction. All the interpretive cannons. It’s fascinating. So I like that world. But then the world
that people talk about that you don’t
agree on something… oh, you hate old people! What!? Or you want
to execute people. I haven’t met a judge who
wants to execute anybody. I haven’t met that judge yet. In fact, every judge I have
met, going through these cases, look at what it does
to your hair. So you start out, your hair
is black, you have lots of it, and then all of a sudden
you’re follicle-ly impaired. And it’s gray. Oh, my God, another execution! Every one of us is like,
did I get it right? Did I make a mistake? And yet you have the people
who create the myth about it. , who think that somehow you’re
callously doing these things. Those are people who never
stayed up in the middle of the night and voted
for one of these things. So I like being around judges. I like the work. I like the world
that I’m a part of. I think the world
— those who talk about it are not doing the
world justice or the rest of the fellow citizens
justice in talking about an important part
of their government.>>GREGORY MAGGS:
Talking about the work, I notice the Supreme
Court statistics that for the last two years
you have written about twice as many opinions as any
of the other justices.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: That’s
because I really don’t talk, so I get to write a lot. [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS:
Why so many opinions?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: Who knows? Justice Scalia said
I was solisistic. I said, I have no
idea what that means, but I like the ring of it. So I think that means
I like my own opinions. He said once, Clarence,
you don’t care for other people’s
opinions, do you? No, I do care, but
I prefer my own. I don’t know. I think it is really
important that when you vote for these things
that you explain why, and that if it doesn’t make
sense — my granddaddy — I’m not going to use the
words he used exactly, but he would say… “Boy, if it don’t make no
sense, it don’t make no sense.” He would spice it
up a little bit. And, you know, things
have to make sense to me. When you come from the lower
levels of society, when you — poverty, things have
to make sense. My granddaddy, either
you fed the hogs or you didn’t feed the hogs. You greased the tractor or
didn’t grease the tractor. You either planted the corn
or you didn’t plant the corn. It was binary. It was clear. And I think when
we do these cases, we owe it to our fellow
citizens to explain in plain language
what we are doing. And sometimes when
you see me writing, it’s because what the Court is
doing, the premise, I think, disagree with, and
I think it’s wrong. And if you go back and you look
at the Court of Appeals judges, I think it is a little
bit glib — I’m not going to say
disrespectful — for us to — when there are differences
of opinions in the Courts of Appeals and District Courts, for us not to explain why
we hold a different opinion from them or not to fully
explore the opinions below, and just glibly disagree. And I think we owe
them that respect. So I worked through everything. And I probably put a lot of
pressure on my law clerks. I wouldn’t clerk for me. That is way too much work. And I tell them that
before they’re done. Are you sure you
want to do this? Why are you doing this? You know there’s
a 13th amendment. [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS: What’s changed in your judging over
the 27 years?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: That
is really a good question. Judge. You know, it’s sort of
like if you climb a mountain, when you’re at 1,000
feet, you see something. You still look at
the same scenery, but you have a different
view from when you’re at 10,000 feet or
5,000 5,000 feet. You see more. I’ve been doing this so
long that you see more. You understand more. The reason I was reading this
book on the Plantaginents was because of English common law,
starred out people do a lot of talking about stare decisis,
so I decided to teach a course to understand it in depth. But to understand stare decisis, you have to understand
English common law. To understand English common
law, you have to understand where England came from,
the Norman conquest, the Vikings, the Romans. Then to understand that you
have to trace those histories. So anyway, I’ve done that
and now I’m fascinated by the Platginents and what
they’ve done developing England. What were they doing? Why did the king pull
all this together? But to understand you’ve got to
pull all the history together. But look how many
years that takes. That’s what I learned at Yale. This wasn’t a sprint. It was a marathon. It was a life-long endeavor. It’s what you and I do when
we teach constitutional law together. Look at the cases we’ve read. Look at how in-depth
we’ve read those cases. How many people care
about Crop v. Dulles. You and I do. We care about it. Vlas v. Cohen. Decided but they don’t read it. You and I do. We have to. Why? Because we’re messing with
other people’s constitution. You and I have to do
it, and you know why. We have to go back
and read the briefs. Because we’re tinkering with
other people’s constitution. We don’t have any
unlimited license to do that. And we certainly don’t have a
right to be reckless with it. So over the years what you learn
is it’s like you’ve peeled — you’ve gone higher
or another metaphor, you’re peeling the onion and
you understand, you see more. Not because you’re smarter
or because people love to set themselves up as
philosopher, kings or something. No. It’s because you’ve
been doing it longer. This is what I do. I don’t have hobbies. Well, except for
rooting against Alabama. [ Laughter ] You knew it was coming,
didn’t you? Oh, my gosh, they stole
another national championship! You know, I… I don’t… This is what I do. I do law. And it consumes you. And virtually everything I do is in preparation of
doing this job. I think I owe this. Remember, it’s about
your calling. And if you’re called
to do it, you’re called to do it a certain way. If you go back and
look at Justice Scalia, look what he died doing. People forget, he
had finished — he thought it was our job to fly
the flag, to go different places and to talk to people
about what we do. He was more outgoing than I am. But he would tell me, Clarence,
you got to fly the flag. You have to go out there. Then the other thing,
when he did his work, everything mattered to him. Every sentence. Every word. Every comma. Every idea. It all mattered. And it mattered. That’s one of the reasons
we trusted each other. Because we both knew
it mattered. Getting it right was
important to both of us. Why would we do it otherwise? Why would we be doing this? This is wrong. How would you look your
fellow citizens in the eye if you didn’t get it right? If I looked at you and
told you, oh, I don’t care. I kind of… you know, I go and watch
cartoons and then, you know, I kind of flip coins
for your constitution. Or I just kind of do
whatever I want to do. I would never do that. Ever. Because that’s wrong. And he believed the same thing. We took an oath to
do it a certain way. So I think I have to
inform myself in order to make decisions about
your constitution. And you feel the exact same way. And you just became a judge. And you know you feel
exactly the same way. That you have a special
obligation or you wouldn’t have
been 28 years as a Reservist in the military. Or the best teacher
at GW Law School for a quarter of a century.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Talk about
your teaching, Justice. [ Laughter ]>>CLARENCE THOMAS: I knew
you’d change the subject.>>GREGORY MAGGS: You’ve taught
at Georgia and George Mason, GW.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: I love it.>>GREGORY MAGGS: What
is your goal in teaching?>>CLARENCE THOMAS: You
know, I think that we — I think that people
make learning — well, let me back up. Did you see the wizard of Oz? Who was the wizard?>>GREGORY MAGGS:
Who was the wizard?>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
This little guy.>>GREGORY MAGGS: The little
guy, I could have said that.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: I think
what we do sometimes is we make everything mysterious.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Don’t
look behind the curtain.>>CLARENCE THOMAS: Yeah,
that’s what we do in our class. It’s not mysterious. There was a young man in
our constitutional law class at the end, he said, I’ll never
look at law the same again. I don’t know what
his meanings were. I don’t care what
his ideology is. What we were trying to get
him to do is de-mystify it. It’s not that complicated. Why do we make it complicated? Why do we make it inaccessible? I had a buddy who
was a quadriplegic, back in the ’70s before you
have the flush and curb cuts. Every time we got a curb, it
was a great wall of China. If we weren’t there to lift
him, it was inaccessible to him. To some extent that’s
what we do to law. We start talking about
negative pregnants and use double entendres
and throw in a little Latin
or a little of this. Why don’t we talk in English? That farmer in rural
Alabama has a right to know what his
constitution says. And so what I do is —
one of the things I say — and I said it even
when you were clerking, is that genius is not
putting a $20 ten-cent idea in a $20 sentence. Genius is putting a $20
idea in a ten-cent sentence. It is to make it accessible
as possible to average people. So when I used to go back
home, think about it, I came from a world of
illiteracy, near illiteracy. And when you went back home, you
could not talk down to people. That’s what they
would say to you. They wouldn’t use the
word “condescend.” That wasn’t in their vocabulary. You’re talking down to me,
you’re putting me down. But you have to explain things
to them without treating them like they’re lesser
human beings. So it’s what we used to say in
the vernacular back in the ’60s, you have to break it down. In other words, you have to
speak without losing meaning, without losing content,
you have to explain it in a language that
they understood. And I think one of the
things that we try to do in the opinions is to
explain things to people. I think we owe it to people. In order to do that,
we have to know it, as we do in the classes. Look at the eyes on the
students when we’re done. When they figure out that they
know more about Lockner now than they did before, simply
because we read the briefs and articles about
it, et cetera, and we know the story behind it. And all of a sudden
they can claim it. They understand it. It makes sense. If you look — when
I wrote separately in the McDonald opinion,
what I was trying to do is, after all this talk of
substantive due process, just simply explain to people,
we don’t know where it — where does it come from? Where does it come from? It’s not in the constitution. So you go back and you
say, here is what is there. You don’t have to agree. But the immunity clause
is actually there. Here is what they
actually debated. You can disagree with that. But you can see the coherence. You can see — you can go to
Dred Scott and you can see — you know, like Tawney
says, can’t be citizen, remedied in the 14th amendment. And you can’t deny citizenship. It makes sense once you
go through the history. That’s what I tried
to do in the opinions. It’s not so much to give
you some legal theory but to give you the
progress of this provision. And then to show you where
it’s connected to some of the other concerns
they had about blacks in the south being able
to defend themselves.>>GREGORY MAGGS: Justice, I wish we could stay
all afternoon.>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
Well, they’re leaving, but you and I can stay. [ Laughter ]>>GREGORY MAGGS: I’ve gotten
the signal that time is up. Thank you for your remarks.>>CLARENCE THOMAS:
Thank you all for spending this
afternoon with us. I’m sorry to take so
much of your time. And maybe we didn’t
cover everything that you probably wanted
us to, but we’re going to be talking later on about
the dormant commerce clause for those that are
interested interested. Thank you all very, very much. [Applause]>>This has been a
presentation of the Library of Congress, visit
us at LOC.gov.

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