Thomas Warm, Fuzzy at Stetson Speech

Clarence Thomas speaks at Stetson
Photo courtesy of Stetson University College of Law
TAMPA (2010-2-2) -

It's rare for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice to come to town - and almost as rare to hear Justice Clarence Thomas speak openly about his views. Both happened Tuesday as he visited Stetson Law School.

Clarence Thomas has been called a lot of things in the media. He's usually portrayed as the naysayer - as a staunch conservative who sticks to the facts and doesn't let his personal history - or emotions - influence a ruling.

But speaking at Stetson University College of Law, Thomas came across as rather - well, warm and fuzzy. He spoke for only 15 minutes before answering questions for an hour and a half. He joked with the students and said to them, "I know what you're going through."

"I've sat where you all are sitting," Thomas said. "Wondering if I was going to get a job. Wondering what I was going to do next. Wondering how I was going to repay my student loans. Wondering how I was going to buy Infamil for my baby."

Thomas spoke at length about growing up in segregated Savannah, Ga. He portrayed it as a kinder, gentler time, where neighbors helped neighbors. Where he could bicycle safely to Mass before sunup. Where - as he put it - if you caught too many fish, you could give one to your neighbor and get some corn back in return.

"I still have reflections of segregated school and saying the pledge allegiance to the flag - proudly," he said. "Patriotic, proudly. People fighing to be part of a war when they were living under segregation because they're proud of their country. We weren't always fighting each other about who had more rights and who had less. It's like our family, whether we get along or not. And in some sense, And it some sense the one thing we can regain is it's our country, and it's worth keeping. And it's our Constitution, and it's worth interpreting right."

What obstacles he overcame were more personal - surviving rejection after rejection from law firms. If there's one lesson, he told the students, it's to keep the fires of faith burning.

During question and answer time, sophomore law student Jumba Mugwanya felt comfortable enough with Thomas to ask him for a job. Later, he said he was impressed with how Thomas interacted with the students.

"You don't have to take the traditional path to rise to the top of the ranks of the profession," Mugwanya said. "I mean, him talking about how he worked at New Haven Legal Services - I applied for a lot of positions with legal aid societies across the country, so it's kind of encouraging to know that someone could rise from that level."

There were several nuggets of news unearthed between Thomas' tales of his childhood. He explained why he skipped the president's State of the Union speech last week.

"I don't go because it's become so partisan," said Thomas. "And it's very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there. And there's a lot you don't hear on TV - the catcalls, and the hooping and hollering and under the breath comments. So we decided not to go and some members continue to go, and that's fine. But one of the consequences is now the court becomes part of the conversation - if you want to call it that - in the speeches."

This came after a student asked about Justice Samuel Alito, who shook his head and appeared to mouth the words “not true” as the president criticized the court’s recent decision on campaign finance. When asked about the ruling to allow corporations to donate directly to campaigns, Thomas said he was merely following his previous opinions.

"If 10 of you got together and decided to speak, just as a group, you'll say you have First Amendment rights to speak and the First Amendment right of association," he said. "If you all then formed a partnership to speak, you'll say you still have that First Amendment right to speak and of association. But what if you put yourself in a corporate form?"

Thomas said he came to Stetson because he likes talking the law school students, and because he last visited there 25 years ago. Now, he's pledging to return before another 25 years pass.

To hear his entire speech at Stetson, click on the "Full Audio" link below.

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