Visit to the Supreme Court of the United States

June 14, 2011

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor Photo by Wendy L. Doromal ©2011

Each year U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas generously sets aside a couple hours to meet with students and educators from the Orange County Public Schools' COMPACT and Service Learning Programs.  He is both inspirational and personable.  This year's meeting was amazing, as always, but it was even more special than usual because we also had the privilege of meeting Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor!

We met in the beautiful room that we always meet in, which is located beyond the guards and gold gate.  I have been there five times now and I am awed each time I enter.  It is ornately decorated with rich woodwork, a fireplace with a marble mantle, crystal chandeliers, beautifully carved ceiling tiles and distinguished portraits. The room has gorgeous furnishings – beautiful tables adorned with jade lamps, elegant chairs and a lush rose-colored carpet.  It has tall windows and opens to a large courtyard with a fountain and flowers.

Associate Justice Thomas addressed the 19 students and 7 educators, answered questioned, and then posed for group and individual photos with everyone. He asked each student about their dreams and future plans. He told the students to avoid "dream killers" and gave each of them advice in a one-on-one conversation.

This year I took notes so I didn't forget anything that he said. One thing that he told the students was, "Just because you had a modest start doesn't mean you should let someone predict your future." He told them to "do something beyond yourself."

Associate Justice Thomas talked about his life growing up in poverty in Savannah, Georgia and being raised by his grandfather. He was 9 years old when he first met his father.  His grandfather was born in 1907 and was the son of a freed slave who never attended school.

Thomas spoke of segregation, which he experienced growing up in the south.  He said that in 1963 when segregation of the Savannah Public Library ended, he went there as much as he could. He still enjoys reading books. He noted that now the library has mostly retired citizens that visit and lamented the missed opportunity of young people not reading books or wanting to go to the library.

The justice also mentioned that during segregation, Savannah's Daffin Park was only open to whites. He said that blacks could walk around the perimeter, but could not enter the park. He mentioned that the legal case filed to fight the park's segregation made it to the Supreme Court.  (The case dealt with charges against several black men who were arrested in the park for playing basketball there.) The Supreme Court ruled "that one cannot be punished for failing to obey a command which violates the Constitution. In this case, the police officers’ command violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment since the command was intended to enforce racial discrimination in a park."

Associate Justice Thomas also answered several questions from students.  We learned that he doesn't care much about clothes and style. He wears only white and blue shirts and burgundy (his favorite color) ties.  He wears comfortable shoes and said that he believes the saying, "You make the clothes, the clothes don't make you."

When asked about career choices, he said to go with your heart when picking a career. He said, "The life that you influence is more important than the money that you earn."

When asked about politics, he said that he doesn't "know much about politics; doesn't like politics" and added, "I like things that make sense; like things that add up."

Describing what it is like to serve on the Supreme Court he said that there are about 9,000 cases that are submitted to the Supreme Court each year. The Justices decide which cases they will hear, with only about 80 being accepted for oral arguments. All of the members work together as a group to issue opinions, except on rare occasions when a member is recused.  During the session that lasts from October to the end of June, the Justices hear cases from Monday through Wednesday mornings each week. Wednesday afternoon they meet to decide the Monday cases. On Thursday and Friday they decide the Tuesday and Wednesday morning cases. They allow no staff or recording devices when they meet.

Justice Thomas said that the meetings are very formal. There is no name calling or incivility between members, as the work of the court as a whole is more important than the individual members. He also told us that the members sit around the table by seniority with the Chief Justice at the head of the table and others seated by seniority. They vote in descending order of seniority. Justice Thomas has been on the Court for twenty years.

I was able to speak to Justice Thomas after I took photographs of all of the students and chaperons and before posing for my own. He asked me where my accent was from. (I didn't know I had one.) Also, my director told him that I did human rights work and Justice Thomas told me about slavery in various parts of the world.

When Justice Thomas learned that one of the students with us was related to Justice Sotomayor, he said that he would see if she could come to meet her.  Justice Sotomayor joined us with the Court's curator and photographer who took several photos of the group with the Justice. The three perfect photographs by the Court's photographer are for commemorative purposes only (to frame). We are not allowed to publish them or place them online, but here are some that I took at the Supreme Court and meeting:


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Wendy!

I have been a member of the bar of the Court for over 18 years, but have never been to those private areas.

Nice fountain!

I am also impressed that you interacted respectfully with the Court's most conservative member, which says something about your civility.

I'm sure this will be a memory and inspiration that lasts for your students' lifetime. Keep up the strong work.

Wendy Doromal said...

The students compete for this trip -they must have high grades, good attendance and write two essays. One of my students from Puerto Rico, Camila, wrote that Justice Sotomayor was her hero. Imagine how excited she was to meet her! It was wonderful!