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Talking With Justice Thomas

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Some excerpts from yesterday’s interview with Justice Clarence Thomas:

HH: Do you believe the Host is the Body of Christ, and the… 

CT: Oh, yes. And I say that. The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

HH: And do you still say the Rosary? 

CT: Oh, yes.

HH: And does this in any way affect how you judge? You know, Dean Geoffrey Stone of Chicago said last year after the partial birth abortion decision, he implied, some people say he argued bluntly, that it was a decision based on theology. Was that wrong of him? Or is it inevitable that someone so deeply immersed in Catholic theology will see it affect how they judge? 

CT: Oh, no. In fact, it works just the opposite. My view is simply that the important thing that it pushes you toward is adherence to your oath, which is to judge impartially. And my view is once you start sort of putting your personal beliefs and opinions into the law, or into the Constitution, you cease to have legitimacy, and I don’t think you should be on the Bench. Now I find that fascinating, though, that people would say things like that, and in the same breath, what I get, is the criticism that I don’t judge as a black judge, you know?

HH: Yup. 

CT: I’m supposed to somehow include my race in my judging, but the religion, you don’t include in your judging. I don’t think you should include either in your judging, and I don’t. And in sixteen years on the Bench, well, I’m one week short of sixteen years. But in the almost sixteen years I’ve been on the Bench on the Supreme Court, I have never done that. And in the more than sixteen I’ve been a federal judge, I have never done that.


CT: That’s, you know, first of all, let me just preface that by saying my classmates there at Yale were just fabulous with me. I got along with them, I did well there, you got to debate things and have great times. But you know, when it was time for me to leave to get a job, I could not get a job. And I realized that in the interviews, that one law firm, for example, starts asking me about what kind of courses I took in the 8th grade, and somehow, being totally not believing that the courses that I took in law school meant anything. And the fact that I couldn’t get a job at all with any of the major law firms suggested to me that my degree was being treated in a way that was quite different from the way that my classmates’ degrees from Yale were being treated.

HH: Page 87, you write, “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth, when it bore the taint of racial preference. I was humiliated and desperate. The snake, the water moccasin, had struck.” When the Michigan affirmative action cases were being argued and debated a few terms ago, did you use this experience in your own judging, or in attempting to persuade the other judges about my alma mater’s preferences exercised at the law school there? 

CT: No, not really. I just…that was more 14th Amendment analysis, and the question as to whether or not diversity was a compelling state interest. That’s separate and apart what my own reaction was, if indeed it was a compelling state interest. Even if I disagreed with it as a matter of policy, I would certainly have come out the other way.


HH: Now Justice Thomas, you…that comes up in the course of talking about arguing as you did before the Missouri Supreme Court. And your first argument there, you’ve got a lawyer who’s not dressed right, who’s indulging in histrionics, and you write about your reaction to that. You are famous for not asking questions in oral argument. Is that an inclination from the days when you argued before the Missouri Supreme Court and saw a different approach to lawyering, and justices rendering questions and decisions? 

CT: Well, I just think from my perspective, that that was, they judged, they allowed me to argue my case. And I think that we can allow lawyers to argue theirs. This is the appellate level. We know which questions, we’re the ones who ask the questions, we’re the ones who have written the opinions that are being cited, we’re the ones who’ve had just a tremendous amount of time to read the briefs, to study them, to think about them, et cetera. And oral arguments are only 30 minutes per side. And if you’ve had hours to study these issues, I don’t think we need to use up all of that 30 minutes asking these advocates questions. A few questions as they were, there were a few questions I asked when I first went on the Court, and I think if we return to that, that would be plenty.


HH: Have you met Bobby Knight? 

CT: Oh, Bobby Knight’s a friend of mine.

HH: Oh, I love that. I think that’s so wonderful. Here’s the quote. “Everybody has a will to win. What’s far more important is having the will to prepare to win.” 

CT: Yeah. 

HH: When you talk with Coach Knight, do you think he’s gotten a fair deal from the American media? 

CT: You know, that’s one basis that I met him on, was because of what was happening with him in the media. I just thought he was being treated rather shabbily. He had a player playing for him from Savannah, Georgia back in the 60’s named Joe B. Wright. And the thing I liked about him, and I started following him back when he first went to Indiana, was that his players graduated, and that he was tough on them, they ran his system, but it was disciplined. And I liked the fact that he was bright and he was no-nonsense. And he was good at what he did. Furthermore, I had a chance to meet with [Charles] Barkley when he was playing with the Phoenix Suns, I think. And Barkley was telling me that Coach Knight was responsible for his career, because he required him to lose weight. And Barkley, of course, didn’t at the time. But Coach Knight counseled him that he would be a great player at a certain weight, and that if he lost that weight, he would be one day possibly in the Hall of Fame. Well, of course, that happened. And Barkley lost the weight, maintained that weight through his playing career, and had an outstanding professional career.

HH: Now often do you talk to Bobby Knight? 

CT: Infrequently. Probably once, twice a year. I mean, I had lunch with him a few weeks ago.

HH: Okay. Are you a sports fan? I know you were an athlete for a long time, a pretty good one. But are you a sports guy? A hoops fan or a football guy?

CT: I like college football. My team’s going through it. I’m a Nebraska Cornhusker fan.

HH: Ooh.

CT: But we’re having a little bit of a difficult time right now. And I’ve been a Cowboys fan since Bob Hayes went there in 1964.

HH: Do you agree with me that USC, the University of Southern California, probably should not be allowed to play athletics, Justice Thomas? 

CT: (laughing) I’m not getting…(laughing) 


HH: When you go through these two confirmations, and we’ll come back to that in a moment, it makes me, it turns my stomach to read this stuff again. Did you have a reaction you can share with us to the nomination and withdrawal of the nomination of Harriet Miers? It’s been the closest to the wreckage that you had to go through.

CT: No, I just, you know, anytime a human being is drawn into that process, it’s almost as though you’re witnessing something bad, and that human beings are treated almost as though they are objects. So yeah, I mean you’re sad anytime anybody’s caught up in that.

HH: And can that be saved? You know, Stephen Carter’s written a book about the nomination mess, and others have worried about it. Do you see there’s any way out of it now that the media has surrounded it, and the interest groups are out there with the long knives out for any nominee who could affect their agendas? 

CT: Well, the…I don’t know. The Soviet Union fell, the Berlin Wall came down. I just can’t tell you that, I won’t say to you that it’s impossible. Again, I can’t see from where I am an end to it, but I can be hopeful that there’s an end to it. And that was one of the points I was trying to make, that people keep saying they want to re-fight all those battles.  I’m not interested in that. My point is simply that we have lost control of a very, very important process in our society. You know, I’ll give you an example. My normal chambers are those of Byron White. And Byron White was nominated and sworn in within ten days. Now the question I have is this. It’s very simple. What is better for going through…what is better about our judiciary for putting people through the ordeal that we’re putting them through now, rather than doing it the way that Byron White experienced the process? 


HH: Have you had a chance to read Jeff Toobin’s new book, The Nine? 

CT: Oh, no, and I won’t have time.

HH: (laughing) Well… 

CT: I know you didn’t think much of it.

HH: No, I didn’t, and I like Jeff Toobin, but I thought it was just very unfair to a number of your colleagues. And especially after Bush V. Gore, he paints this dysfunctional Court where the bitterness is going on and people are crying and crushed.  Anything accurate in that account? 

CT: (laughing) I didn’t see anybody crying. And the last I can remember is that after we announced the opinion, we all went upstairs and had lunch.

HH: He writes in there that the Court’s embarrassed by Bush V. Gore. Is that fair? 

CT: I haven’t seen it (laughing). Look, I suffer from the disadvantage that I’m there every day. 

HH: (laughing)

CT: I mean, this would all probably make more sense to me if I wasn’t there. I’ve not seen any embarrassment, I haven’t seen any dysfunctional, any evidence that the Court is dysfunctional. And so I can’t, I really can’t comment on something that’s not happening.


HH: Are you aware of the war? Ever since 9/11, have you been conscious that there are people in the world that want to destroy America? 

CT: (laughing) How can you not be conscious?

HH: Well, I read some of the decisions and I wonder about some of your colleagues, so… 

CT: Well, but you know, I’ve written in some of those, and I’m not going to get into them, but the point is simply this, that you know, I’m aware of what’s going on in the world. 


HH: Throughout that process. George Herbert Walker Bush stood absolutely firmly behind your nomination. Did that surprise you?

CT: You know, no, because I met him face to face. And you know, I know people say , for example, that he said that I was the most qualified, and I tried to talk about that through Boyden Gray. But I choose to believe the President. He has been a man of his word. From day one, from the day we talked in Kennebunkport to this day, he’s been a man of his word. And through it all, he never wavered. And God bless him. And neither did Senator Danforth, again, a man of his word. And he said, the day I was nominated, he said Clarence, I will be devoted to you. He did that in much the same way that he said years before, he said Clarence, I will treat you the same as anybody else in my office. The man has lived up to his word, both of them. So you know, I can’t in any way criticize him. I can only say that I am so grateful to him, I’m grateful to Senator Danforth, and I am honored that he, that President Bush nominated me. 

HH: Do you admire his son as a president?

CT: I admire anybody who stands up and leads. Now you can always disagree with a person here or there, but I admire anybody who gets in a position and actually tries to lead.



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