A conversation with an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Photo by Nani Doromal ©2010

June 19, 2010

Every year for 17 years Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has taken an hour or two from his busy schedule to meet with students from the Orange County Public Schools COMPACT and Service Learning Programs.   I have been present at three such meetings and also met him in Florida when he was keynote speaker at our 20th anniversary COMPACT banquet.

I remember in 1998 before my first meeting with Justice Thomas, fellow chaperons asked the coordinator if he thought it was a good idea to have someone as "liberal and opinionated as Wendy" to meet with Justice Thomas. I am sure I would have kept my opinions to myself if I had disagreed with him, but he said nothing that veered from an extremely moving and inspirational message directed at the students.

We met with Justice Thomas in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court Building. It's a very elegant room with detailed woodwork, a highly decorated ceiling with intricate crystal chandeliers, and portraits of former Supreme Court Justices. The large room has a private courtyard with a fountain outside the French doors.

Justice Thomas is aware that COMPACT students are at risk for dropping out of school for a wide variety of reasons from family situations to extreme poverty to running with the wrong crowd.  The first two times I was present during the meetings with him he spoke of his own family difficulties, language barriers and growing up in poverty.  Tuesday when we met with him, he spoke in more general terms, still with an inspirational message, but only speaking of his own background if he was asked a question about it.

Justice Thomas spoke for about 20 minutes and then took over 40 minutes of questions from students. After that he mingled with students and chaperons and had his photo taken with each school group and every chaperon and student.

He told the students to take responsibility for their actions, stay focused, and avoid distraction.  Some of his answers to students' questions were interesting. He said that his favorite president was Ronald Reagan.  He said that he hates politics.  He said that the most disturbing cases concerned the death penalty and murderers.  He said that he never regretted a decision that he made as a justice.

The justice grew up in Pin Point, Georgia a community founded by former slaves.  His father was a farmer and his mother was a maid. He spoke Gullah (Geechee), a language with African roots as his first language.  We had 9 students on our trip who were born outside of the U.S. and have varying degrees of English skills. Awat, a student from Africa, asked Justice Thomas how he learned to speak English so perfectly and what was his advice for how he could master the language.   His response was to set aside about  fifteen minutes each day and listen to books on tape while following along with the book.  He told Awat to learn five new vocabulary words every day.

He told the students that when he was young some boys made fun of him for going to the library.  He ignored them.

Justice Thomas often made analogies to sports, which the students appreciated.  He likes the Dallas Cowboys and doesn't care much for basketball.

He spoke poorly of his father who apparently abandoned his family, as he was raised by his grandfather who was his role model.  He said that he disappointed his grandfather when he left the seminary where he was studying to become a Catholic priest.

Twelve years ago I remember Justice Thomas telling a student that if she graduated from college he would let her drive his Corvette.  I am not sure if she ever graduated or ever met him again, but at this week's meeting he talked about materialism and how he was freed from it. He sold his Corvette and drives a "beat up" Saturn.

One of the students asked Justice Thomas if he ever ate at The Capital Grille, a restaurant where we had lunch in a private dining room hosted by Darden Restaurant's Diversity Outreach Director, Julio Suarez. He said that he eats there almost every day, and in fact, was actually dining there when we were there on Monday. The restaurant is known for it's great food and for being a place to watch the politically elite come and go.

Justice Thomas had a gentle voice when speaking individually to us, and would often hold a student's hand and look directly into their eyes while he listened and spoke.  When he laughs, everyone laughs. He has the kind of surreal, extremely loud, and deep laugh that fills a room.

When Nani met Justice Thomas a few years ago, I took their photo and noticed he was whispering something to her that made her smile. Later I asked her what he had said. He told her to always follow her dreams and reach for the stars.

What did the students think? They agreed that the two hour meeting with Justice Thomas was the highlight of their six day trip. One student said that the K-9 inspection of the bus and police escort through the Capitol area hinted that this was going to be something extraordinary, and it was. Another said that Justice Thomas should write of book of inspirational quotes and advice for students.

Photos by W. L. Doromal and Nani Doromal ©2010


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing with us a wonderful experience. Nice piece!

Anonymous said...

I am glad you can recognize that conservatives or people who do not identify themselves as progressive or liberal are not necessarily demons.

We all share a common humanity, and many of the same goals.

A good number of our political differencies lie in what we perceive or understand to be the most effective ways of reaching those goals, or how we define and prioritize those goals.

Anonymous said...


What a beautiful piece! Like you I suspect, I have little in common with the world view of Justice Thomas and am often at odds with the "logic" of his decisions & opinions.

Still, he is an amazing human being and obviously cares about people. Dare I say he truly is a "compassionate conservative"? Your piece is reminiscent of what Neil Young sang many years back: "Even Richard Nixon has got soul..."


Wendy said...

Kermit -I am sending you some photos!