Justice Clarence Thomas in conversation with Judge Diane Sykes.

Over the past few years, some amazing speakers have appeared at the Thursday evening dinner of the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention. Last year, Justice Samuel A. Alito offered a very funny look back at his time at Yale Law School. In 2010, Justice Antonin Scalia engaged in a spirited and wide-ranging conversation with legal journalist Jan Crawford.

Last night’s event will be tough to top. Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking with Judge Diane Sykes of the Seventh Circuit, delivered remarks that were “equal parts hysterical, poignant and inspiring,” as Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett noted on Twitter.

I was lucky enough to attend, seated just one table away from the stage. Here’s my account of the evening (plus a few photos)….

Judge Sykes introducing Justice Thomas.

The event took place in the cavernous ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, one of the few venues large enough to accommodate the roughly 1,300 attendees. The crowd included legal luminaries too numerous to mention; I’ll simply note that the room was one vote shy of being able to grant cert (Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito also attended).

Judge Sykes — stylishly attired in a bright magenta jacket, shiny black pants, and an impressive amount of bling for a federal judge — did a superb job interviewing Justice Thomas. She did not make the mistake made by some SCOTUS interviewers of being too interventionist; instead, she gently and unobtrusively guided the conversation with thoughtful questions, keeping the spotlight on Justice Thomas. Her interviewing skill won praise from the attendees I spoke with after the event, as well as from the Los Angeles Times.

(I was not surprised at all by Judge Sykes’s fabulosity as an interviewer. First, she holds a journalism degree from Northwestern and worked as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal before going to law school. Second, having interviewed her for a Fed Soc event at U. Chicago, I know firsthand how delightful a conversationalist she is.)

When Justice Thomas took the stage, he looked almost unhappy, or least experiencing some Supreme Discomfort (affiliate link). He actually commented to Judge Sykes about how weird it felt to have so many eyes on him, a surprising sentiment from someone who went through televised confirmation hearings and who has addressed many sizable audiences over the years.

But any awkwardness lasted only briefly. Judge Sykes quickly put Justice Thomas at ease, and after a few minutes of discussing his remarkable life story, he had the audience under his spell. As Kashmir Hill and I wrote in the Washington Post a few years ago, when we urged Justice Thomas to run for president, he is “charismatic and compelling” in person, and “his people skills are wasted in the stuffy, stilted, stylized interactions between lawyers and Supreme Court justices.”

People who have read Justice Thomas’s extraordinary memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (affiliate link), are familiar with his journey from being a supporter of the Black Panthers to a rock-ribbed conservative. If you’re not familiar with it, this exchange from last night pretty much captures it:

Judge Sykes: You were something of a campus radical.

Justice Thomas: Yeah, but I wasn’t a dope head. The sixties were different.

They sure were. Cf. Justice Alito’s Fed Soc speech from last year (“who put the acid in the wine”).

Justice Thomas is sometimes described by liberal commentators — including one of my colleagues, Elie Mystal — as bitter and angry. But as he explained in a particularly heartfelt part of the conversation, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. He vividly recalled the emotional morning of April 16, 1970, when he returned to Holy Cross College after attending a riot in Harvard Square. Deeply troubled by how full he was of hate, he prayed to God and promised that if God could help him through this darkness, he would never hate again.

God came through for him — and Justice Thomas was forever changed. So he rejects any portraits of him as angry, hateful, or obsessed with settling old scores:

That is the opposite of the way I was raised, the opposite of the deal I made with God on April 16.

Critics might respond to this by citing Justice Thomas’s famous antipathy towards his alma mater, Yale Law School, partly attributable to how some members of the YLS community opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court. But as reflected in his visit to YLS, which went very well, consider that water under the bridge; last night he had warm words for Yale, saying that the school was like a family to him and that going to YLS “was very beneficial to me.”

Some of Justice Thomas’s former anger for Yale related to his difficulty in finding a post-graduation job. As he put it in his memoir, “Many [employers] asked pointed questions unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated. Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference.”

But last night, Justice Thomas was actually able to joke about his challenging job hunt (so take heart, unemployed or underemployed law school graduates; maybe someday you too will look back and laugh). As he told Judge Sykes, speaking about his first job out of law school, working for then-Missouri Attorney General John Danforth:

The biggest problem I had with him was he was a Republican. But I got over it when I had only one job offer.

In fact, he more than “got over it.” Justice Thomas praised the future U.S. senator and ambassador to the U.N. for his honesty, his ethics, and his compassion, and cited Danforth — along with many others, including Senator Strom Thurmond, Senator Orrin Hatch, and Judge Laurence Silberman — as good people who looked after and supported him during the early days of his legal career. He also thanked Justice Scalia for being such a good friend and colleague on the Court, especially when Justice Thomas was new at One First Street.

How did Justice Thomas make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court? He reduced his distinguished pre-robescent career — which included stints as an in-house lawyer, a staffer on Capitol Hill, the chair of the EEOC, and a judge on the Most Holy D.C. Circuit — to the following:

I quit my job impetuously, packed up a U-Haul, and moved to Washington. One thing led to another and I wound up on the Court. It was totally Forrest Gump.

Last night’s audience roared with laughter at this — and appreciated Justice Thomas’s refreshing humility. It’s unusual to find a distinguished lawyer or jurist who is this self-effacing; most prefer to spin tales of how they got to their current high stations thanks to their own brilliance and hard work.

Judge Sykes asked Justice Thomas how the Court has changed over the 22 years he has served on the Court, alluding to various SCOTUS developments of the past two decades, such as the rise of a specialized Supreme Court bar. But as Robert Barnes put it in the Washington Post, CT “didn’t seem particularly interested in Sykes’s questions about the workings of the modern court.” That’s a fair characterization, in light of Justice Thomas’s concise summary of life as a justice:

There are a lot of briefs, and people doing a lot of talking. I mean, it’s law.

With that attitude, it’s no wonder that Justice Thomas has been silent all these years (at least in terms of asking questions of counsel during oral argument).

But don’t mistake his lack of participation in oral argument for boredom or disinterest. He talked about how a clerk just brought him a draft opinion in a pending case, apologizing for how boring the issue is — by the way, if you have a boring case under submission at SCOTUS, Justice Thomas might be writing your opinion — and he disagreed with that clerk. He explained to Judge Sykes how much he enjoys his work at the Court:

Even the most boring cases are fascinating to me….

I love the cloistered life; I was in the seminary. I love my law clerks. I have this wonderful work to do.

No, I’m not exaggerating the Oprah-esque outpouring of love. As Robert Barnes put it, in an article entitled Clarence Thomas: The Supreme Court’s most happy fella, “the 65-year-old Thomas was full of ‘love’: for his colleagues, for his law clerks, for his life.”

But not, it should be noted, for stare decisis. Justice Thomas — who must have a Word macro that says, “this case does not raise / the parties have not argued [issue X], but in an appropriate case, this Court should revisit [issue X] — had the following exchange with his interlocutor:

Judge Sykes: Stare decisis doesn’t hold much weight with you?

Justice Thomas: Oh it does. But not enough to keep me from going to the Constitution.

Cue the standing ovation. To quote Justice Willett again, #Nerdvana.

Justice Thomas is patient enough to wait for history to catch up with him, comparing some of his jurisprudence to “a fine wine — it just needs aging.” He noted that it took the first Justice Harlan, author of the great dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, sixty years to be vindicated.

The high-stakes cases, which cluster toward the end of the Term, can produce tension and frayed nerves. Judge Sykes asked Justice Thomas about this, and whether he’s eager to escape the building by summer. CT diplomatically responded that he doesn’t really have such problems, which led Justice Scalia to call out from the audience: “I get out of there as soon as I can!”

During the summer recess, Justice Scalia enjoys visiting Europe, as do some of his other colleagues (such as the Malta-loving Chief Justice Roberts). But not Justice Thomas:

I will not be characterized as a Europhile. I love the United States.

And would you like a side of freedom fries with that, Your Honor?

As for Justice Thomas’s french-fry fetchers — aka his law clerks — how does he go about choosing them?

Pretty arbitrarily.

After the laughter subsided, Justice Thomas talked about how he relies upon people he trusts to send him law clerks he can trust. He then gave shout-outs to a number of feeder judges, several of whom were in the room: Laurence Silberman (D.C. Cir.), Stephen Williams (D.C. Cir.), David Sentelle (D.C. Cir.), Edith Jones (5th Cir.), and Diarmuid O’Scannlain (9th Cir.; my wonderful former boss, with whom I sat last night).

That’s an impressive list of judges. But don’t mistake Justice Thomas, who hates the term “TTT,” for a prestige whore an elitist. He balances out his reliance upon top-shelf judges with an emphasis on lower-ranked schools, as he explained to Judge Sykes:

I don’t care what school they come from. I hire quite a few from the non-Ivies. I try to take from the South. I can hire from LSU or from Yale. I prefer kids from modest backgrounds. I like kids who are not jerks.

(Sorry, smart alecks, Twitter already beat you to the Ted Cruz joke. By the way, the high-powered and brilliant Senator Cruz was in the house, listening attentively to Justice Thomas’s remarks.)

Justice Thomas gushed about his law clerks, who are like family to him, and talked about how he takes them to Gettysburg each year. Why? “I want them to understand the price that was paid for this country.”

In response to a question from Judge Sykes about what President Abraham Lincoln and the words of the Gettysburg Address mean to him today, Justice Thomas had this to say:

If not for the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Fifteenth Amendment, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I wouldn’t be sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States.

“This country isn’t perfect,” Justice Thomas said, “but it’s perfectible. That’s what Lincoln’s words mean to me.”

(Flip to the next page for a few more photos, plus links to collected coverage from other news outlets.)


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