Gregory Maggs conducted a conversation with Hon. Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The conversation was held in conjunction with the Supreme Court Fellows Program Annual Events.
Speaker Biography: A native of Georgia, Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and was seated on the Court on October 23, 1991.
Speaker Biography: Gregory E. Maggs is a professor at George Washington University Law School.
>> 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.
> 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
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
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
We are fortunate to have with us also Gregory Maggs to moderate
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.
>> GREGORY MAGGS: Do you feel comfortable?
>> CLARENCE THOMAS: No.
This is not the most suitable position for introverts, but you
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
” 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
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 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
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
“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
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
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
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
who saw beyond their circumstances and
who refused to be limited by those
circumstances or to wallow in the sort of victim status of
>> GREGORY MAGGS: Tell me more
about your grandfather. He was a very strict man. Was he
>> CLARENCE THOMAS: Oh, God 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
>> 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
>> 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
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
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
The reason I was reading this book on
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
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 —
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
And if you’re called to do it, you’re called to do it a certain
If you go back and look at Justice Scalia, look what he
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
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
>> 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
>> 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
>> 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
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.
>> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress, visit us at LOC.gov.
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