When asked last week how he ended up on the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Clarence Thomas said, “It was totally Forrest Gump,” in a revealing–and hilarious–on-stage interview at last week’s Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention.
This full-length interview was a window into the soul of America’s most conservative High Court justice–whose remarks on Gettysburg could not draw a more stark contrast with President Barack Obama.
Thomas was the keynote speaker at last week’s annual gathering of the brightest conservative legal stars in America. He sat down opposite Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. While constitutional conservatives would love to see Sykes–one of the finest judges in the nation–elevated to the Supreme Court herself one day, most are unaware that before she was a judge, Sykes actually earned a college degree in journalism. And it showed, as she conducted a fascinating interview that showed people a side of Thomas rarely seen by anyone except his close friends.
Sykes took Thomas through his childhood years, where he and his brother were raised in Pin Point, Georgia, until age seven by his mother (his father had abandoned them), until she could no longer provide for them and sent them to Savannah to be raised by their grandparents.
As he discusses in his candid memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas was raised in extreme poverty, in a house with no running water and only a single electrical light. Yet he considered his life idyllic, not even knowing the standard of living that many Americans enjoyed by comparison.
Thomas explained that his desire in life was to help people. A devout Roman Catholic, he went to seminary to become a priest, intent on returning to Savannah and ministering to those in need. He left seminary after experiencing vicious racism, unsure what to do next.
During this turbulent time at the end of the 1960s, Thomas found himself bitter and angry. He remembers his grandfather admonishing him, “You were not raised to be that way.”
He also recalls the day his life turned in a new direction. Thomas was at a riot in Harvard Square that turned ugly, and it struck him that things had gone too far, that he was seeing how hatred destroys people and society. He remembers the exact date–April 16, 1970–when he went into a chapel and prayed that if God would remove the hatred he was feeling in his heart, he would resolve never to hate anyone again.
So Thomas went to law school, being accepted to several of the top law schools in the country, and choosing to attend Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.
His focus was still to pursue a career of service, now in the legal profession instead of the priesthood. “I was going to Savannah to be a lawyer to go and help [people],” he explained.
Yet despite having a law degree from the top-ranked law school in America, Thomas could not find work. “I did not get a single job offer.”
Work finally came from Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, a Republican. When Danforth was later elected to the Senate, Thomas went with him to Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide.
This happened in 1976, after which Thomas became part of the Reagan Revolution. He had planned on spending just a couple years in D.C., then return to Savannah to pursue his lifelong goal of helping the people of his adopted hometown. Instead, he would later move from Capitol Hill to the Reagan administration. He was appointed by President Reagan as assistant secretary of education for civil rights in 1981, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1982.
During these years Thomas met and married the woman who would become his inseparable partner, prominent conservative activist Ginni Thomas. He describes his wife as his best friend and, in prior interviews, speaks of Ginni as his anchor and support during his most challenging moments.
Thomas was then nominated by President Bush 41 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1990. One year later, when Thurgood Marshall retired, Bush nominated Thomas to replace Marshall on the Supreme Court. Thomas was confirmed on Oct. 15, 1991, following a brutal confirmation where Senate Democrats tried to derail his appointment.
The justice tells the story of his life with great humility, saying that his life was like Forrest Gump’s: just happening to be standing in the right place when major events were transpiring. He gives the credit to God, whom he says put good people in his life at exactly the right moments, looking out for him and providing crucial guidance.
Thomas sums up more than a decade of his ascension by saying, “One thing led to another, and I ended up on the Court.”
Reflecting on his life as a Supreme Court justice, Thomas mused, “I never thought that I would treasure my job.” Yet he told the audience repeatedly that he loves everything about being a justice, speaking of his excitement every time his car arrives at the Court.
He emphasized not just his respect–but in fact what he calls his love–for his fellow justices, including the liberal ones. He explains that he has his views, but they have theirs, and that each justice has the duty and obligation to follow his or her own view of the law.
Each Supreme Court justice has four law clerks every year. Speaking of selecting clerks, Thomas refers to them as his family, saying, “I get to choose my family… I love my kids.” Once a month he gathers for lunch with as many of his former clerks as can join him (many work in the D.C. area as top appellate lawyers at major firms), calling this one of the highlights for him of each month.
In terms of his judicial philosophy, Thomas is an unabashed originalist: courts must give each term in the Constitution the meaning that the voters of the time would understand those words to carry. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito likewise identify as originalists, which was the official policy of the Reagan administration and is the legal philosophy of the Federalist Society.
But what separates Thomas from most other judicial conservatives is how often he believes justices are not required to follow stare decisis: the doctrine that court precedents should be adhered to unless there is special justification for overruling it.
When asked by Sykes whether he believes stare decisis usually requires following precedent, Thomas replied, “Sure it does–but not enough to keep me from going to the Constitution.” When the Supreme Court fundamentally gets a constitutional issue wrong, Thomas believes the Court often has a duty to correct that mistake in future cases rather than allowing the error to compound over time.
Thomas told Sykes that it is this belief that keeps him from getting discouraged when he writes a separate opinion in some cases that none of his colleagues–even Scalia–joins. “It took Harlan 60 years, but he finally won,” Thomas said.
This is a reference to Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Court in 1896 infamously ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment allows racially-segregated public facilities so long as they are “separate but equal.” Justice John Harlan famously dissented from Plessy, declaring that the Constitution’s amendments adopted after the Civil War were designed to eradicate such racially discriminatory laws. Thomas’ reference to 60 years later is to Brown v. Board of Education, when in 1954 the Court overruled Plessy and declared that segregated public schools are unconstitutional.
Toward the end of the interview, Thomas waxed more sentimental, as Sykes asked him about his tradition of taking his law clerks to Gettysburg each year during the summer after the Court finishes its cases for the year. (Under federal law, each year the Court’s annual Term starts the first Monday of October and usually concludes in the last week of June.)
Although Thomas never mentioned Obama, the contrast could not be sharper between Thomas’ profound reverence for Abraham Lincoln and his standing in awe of the Gettysburg Address. Despite Oprah Winfrey’s absurd comments that those who disagree with Obama do so because he’s black–not because his policies are a miserable failure and his hyper-partisan rhetoric demeans his high office–Obama’s shameful refusal to attend the sesquicentennial anniversary of Lincoln’s great speech reflects a new low by the president, versus Thomas, who credits Lincoln for making it possible for a black man to sit on the Supreme Court.
Thomas eyes lit up as he started talking about the principles of liberty and opportunity that make America great. “I still get goose bumps from these things… I believe these things.”
That is why each year he tells his four law clerks to pile into his RV so he can drive them to the battlefield where the Union gained the upper hand against the Confederacy in the Civil War. “Go to Gettysburg, and see the price that was paid for this country to exist… Think about Lincoln and that terrible war–the things that he said.”
Thomas said he does this to renew his clerks’ faith in America. Hotly-contested decisions always leave part of the country disappointed or angry. He takes them to Gettysburg so they won’t become jaded after they “see the sausage being made.”
He emphasized that the lesson he wants his law clerks–many of whom become the next generation of national legal stars–to take away is that while the Union is not perfect, it is perfectible. “After they see a Term, after they see the imperfections… they still believe that it’s all worthwhile.”
Ken Klukowski is senior legal analyst for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.