GULFPORT — Students and faculty members at Stetson University College of Law were treated Tuesday to one of the rarest sights in American jurisprudence:
A U.S. Supreme Court justice riffing on everything from his disappearing hairline to his co-workers to that fancy show his wife dragged him to one night. What's it called again? Oh, yeah: opera.
Live from Gulfport, it's Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
"We just sit there and ask questions that don't need to be asked," said Thomas, playfully describing the nation's highest court.
It was an inside legal joke that may require background for those who don't regularly follow the high court. Thomas is famous for his silence during oral arguments. By some accounts he hasn't asked a question in three years.
The justices are a recalcitrant group, Thomas even more so after his searing confirmation hearings two decades ago. His public appearances are rare. He hardly ever speaks to the press.
Yet there is one setting where Thomas is the most accessible of the bunch: in front of law students.
That was evident in Tuesday's free-wheeling and candid discussion, the culmination of his two-day visit regaling students and professors at the school.
Two factors brought Thomas to Stetson: his friendship with U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich of the Middle District of Florida in Tampa, a Stetson grad, and Thomas' appointment as circuit justice for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. It's his job to decide on stays and other matters for the court, which includes Florida.
Thomas has a passion for reaching out to law students, said Stetson professor Michael Allen. What few public appearances the justice makes are often at law schools.
"It is difficult to convey how rare of an experience it is for any American law student to have with one of the Supreme Court justices," Allen said.
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Born in Georgia, Thomas rose from a life of poverty and segregation to graduate from Yale Law School in 1974. At first he considered becoming a priest, a journalist and then an athlete. But he went to law school instead.
The 61-year-old Thomas, now in his 19th session on the court, was often earnest as well, especially when he told students the law was "more than just a job, it's a way of life." He spoke to more than 1,200 students, half watching by closed-circuit TV.
"Law school is not just school," he said. "It's helping people solve everyday problems in a way that is short of fisticuffs. It is the rule of law. If we lose the system that we have, what will we have?"
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Students pressed Thomas about the court's landmark decision last month that struck down federal limits on what corporations can spend on political campaigns. He voted with the 5-4 majority.
Critics believe the court handed corporate interests even more influence over the political system, but Thomas said the law was infringing upon free speech rights.
"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. Now what if you wanted to form a corporation?"
Later, another student pressed him that the decision could politically disenfranchise those without a corporation's resources.
Thomas seemed to acknowledge the point, but also cautioned: "The law can't solve all our problems."
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Race and politics don't appear to be his favorite subjects. But Thomas, one of the most conservative thinkers on the court, didn't shy away from them.
"They don't care that I don't judge a case as a Catholic," he said. "But they yell because I don't judge a case as a black man."
During President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week, Justice Samuel Alito appeared to mouth the words "not true" after the president criticized the court's campaign finance decision.
Thomas wasn't at the speech and wouldn't address the issue. Politics, he said, is why he stopped going to the annual address.
"It has become so partisan, it's really uncomfortable for a judge," he said. "There's a lot of things you don't hear on the broadcast.
"You have catcalls and people muttering under their breath."