GULFPORT — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas brought the house down at a two-hour talk Tuesday at Stetson University College of Law.
Thomas, now starting his 19th year as an associate justice, regaled students, faculty and guests with humorous anecdotes, explained and defended how he deliberates and decides cases and offered advice and encouragement to those entering the profession.
He started by apologizing for being hoarse. It was just one of many lines that had the crowd rolling.
"I lost my voice," said Thomas, 61. "Like you lost your good weather."
The talk was originally scheduled outside in the school's courtyard, but was moved indoors because of pouring rain. The media was invited to observe, but not allowed to ask questions.
Thomas charmed the school's president and faculty at a two-hour dinner that lasted four hours Monday night. Then he met privately with students before and after Tuesday's talk.
"I thought he was really good," said second-year law student Tinelle Rose, 24. "He's a really personable person."
Thomas professed his love of county and the Constitution. He said he is most proud of how the Supreme Court goes about its work defending both.
"I would say one of the hallmarks of the court is civility," he said. "What we are trying to protect is larger than us."
But the court's role, he said, is often misunderstood.
"People think we are a court of appeal," he said. "We are not. We are there to settle disputes."
That's the purpose of the law, he said, to settle disputes ("Short of fisticuffs," he said to more laughter.)
Thomas said he learned early in his career that people aren't interested in what he has to say about arcane legal issues that fascinate him. At his wife's insistence, his public talks are now more "interactive." Students lined up to ask questions.
One wanted to know why he chose to go into law.
"I was 20 years old, I was booted out by my grandfather after I quit seminary school," he said. "I was lost."
He considered journalism, then athletics, then the law.
"I thought that I could return to Savannah (Ga.) and do some good," he said. "That's it. I didn't do it to make money."
Then he joked: "Maybe I should have."
Another student asked if the associate justice could help him find a summer job. Thomas encouraged the student to keep looking and stay positive, but added: "I couldn't find one either."
Thomas is known as one of the court's most steadfast conservative justices on the bench and for his reclusive nature off of it. His searing confirmation hearings two decades ago captured the public's attention. He has rarely spoken to the media ever since.
His public appearances are less rare, and in 2007 he released his memoirs.
Like the justice he replaced in 1991, Thurgood Marshall, Thomas rarely questions counsel during oral arguments before the court. In 2009, The New York Times wrote that Thomas hadn't asked a question in three years.
Thomas riffed off his silent reputation on the bench when he compared what the Supreme Court does during oral arguments to the work that judges do in state and federal courtrooms.
"We just sit there and ask questions that don't need to be asked," he said. The legal crowd laughed particularly hard at that.
In all seriousness, Thomas professed his admiration for those judges.
"I don't know if I could look a human being in the face and send them away for 30 years," he said.
Thomas is also known for being unafraid to be the lone dissenter in certain decisions, and many times he has written his own concurring and dissenting opinions.
He did it again in last month's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. He voted with the court's 5-4 majority to overturn a federal ban on campaign spending by corporations, but did so in his own concurring opinion.
Thomas was slightly more reluctant to defend his decision and reasoning in that case.
"If 10 of you got together to speak, you would have a First Amendment right to speak and a First Amendment right to free association," the justice said. "Now what if you wanted to form a corporation?"
But then he closed off that avenue of debate: "I'm not going to re-argue that. People have their opinions."
Later, another student pressed him that his decision might disenfranchise those who don't access to the financial resources of a large corporation.
Thomas seemed to acknowledge the point, but noted that wasn't the issue he had to consider in his decision.
He also cautioned: "The law can't solve all our problems."
Born in Georgia, Thomas rose from a life of poverty and segregation to graduate from Yale Law School in 1974. He was admitted to the Missouri Bar that year.
Thomas was blunt about the privations he suffered because of racism growing up. But said he still preferred the genteelness of that world to what he described as the coldness of modern life.
"Maybe I've become melancholy," he said, "but it wasn't all that bad."
Thomas worked as an attorney at the state and federal levels. Then President George Bush appointed Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1990. A year later, the president nominated Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thomas said he isn't concerned with what his legacy on the bench.
"I'm like Lincoln, I don't think I'll be long remembered," Thomas told them. "But the constitution we serve, the country we serve will be long remembered."
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