Justice Thomas talks at Duquesne University, offers surprises about life journey

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, famous as the jurist who kept silent on the bench for seven years, has a lot to say. Thomas, on the court since 1991, visited Duquesne University on Tuesday afternoon and talked freely with law school Dean Ken Gormley and 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Hardiman for more than an hour as 1,200 students and lawyers looked on at the event billed as “An Afternoon with Clarence Thomas.”

Gormley began by showing a 16-minute film he made and narrated, looking back on the life of the man born in poverty in coastal Georgia who became the nation's second black Supreme Court justice with an appointment from President George H.W. Bush.

Thomas, 64, known as one of the court's most conservative justices, surprised some when he spoke of his sentiments as a young lawyer who voted for Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in presidential elections in 1968 and 1972, and thought they were “too conservative.”

“I certainly was not a Republican when I came to Washington, D.C. I became a Republican to vote for Ronald Reagan,” Thomas said, answering questions from Gormley and Hardiman.

Asked if he thought he'd undergo another transformation, Thomas grinned. “No. I returned to the way I was raised,” he said, speaking of the grandparents who encouraged him to stand his ground and value education, religious faith and hard work.

Those qualities were crucial during his confirmation hearings when allegations surfaced that he made unwanted sexual comments to Anita Hill when she was a subordinate on his legal staff.

“Thank goodness the people in the country are better than the people who claim to be better than anyone else,” Thomas said of that bitter time.

He was quick to point out that he has never called himself a black conservative. That's a title others gave him when he failed to fit into their stereotypes, Thomas said.

Asked if he ever envisioned a black president, Thomas answered quickly.

“Yes. … But I also knew if there was a black president it would have to be approved by the elite. I always assumed it would be someone the media agreed with.”

Thomas told the group he spends his summers traveling across the country in an RV, visiting small towns and occasionally spending the night parked in Wal-Mart parking lots. He offered that he loves opera “on the radio.”

“Some people like to go to the Kennedy Center. I'm a Nebraska Cornhusker fan,” Thomas said.

He said he would like to see the high court include justices from law schools other than Harvard and Yale, which dominate the bench today. Thomas went to Yale, with which he has had a contentious relationship.

“I've been all over the country. … There is something valuable about these people from modest neighborhoods who work their way up,” he said.

Richard DeBlasio and Jeffrey Thomas, second-year law students who attended the roundtable as a class assignment, were impressed that Thomas came to their small Catholic school.

“He's a strict conservative. He believes in what's written down in the Constitution and that's how we should interpret it,” Jeffrey Thomas said.

The students got a lesson in diplomacy as the justice skillfully dodged a question about any common ground he shares with President Obama.

“That's hard to say. What common ground did I have with President Bush 43? I don't like politics,” Thomas said.

Thomas dodged again when a law student asked whether he believes gay marriage is a question better suited for state legislatures than the Supreme Court.

“I'm not going to say anything, or I'll be back on the national news. Good try,” Thomas said.

He told students media reports about animosity on the bench are exaggerated.

As for his famous seven-year silence on the bench, which ended in January, Thomas said he'd prefer to listen.

“I think we have become a cacophony. … I think there are too many questions. I think we have capable advocates and we should let capable advocates talk,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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