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Clarence Thomas sounds off in Orlando about new documentary

The 71-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice said he participated in the documentary to counter “libelous, slanderous propaganda” during a talk to a crowd of his fervent admirers, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.
United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, left, looks on while U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, center, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greet each other during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020.
United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, left, looks on while U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, center, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis greet each other during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Feb. 1, 2020
Updated Feb. 1, 2020

ORLANDO — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said he participated in a new documentary about his life to counter “libelous, slanderous propaganda” that’s been made against him over the last four decades.

During a Friday evening talk at the Federalist Society’s Florida State Conference at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort in Orlando, the 71-year-old justice said he hadn’t seen Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words, which was released Friday. He said it wasn’t his idea to participate in it, either.

“The people who care about me wanted it done because of the very successful propaganda, the sort of libelous, slanderous propaganda that takes hold against all of us to one degree or another,” Thomas told a crowd of hundreds of lawyers, lawmakers, judges and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “And they thought that it would be a way to counter it, so at least we had the truth sitting there.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talk during a interview session during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talk during a interview session during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

He said the “distortions” against him started in 1980, 11 years before his contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing in which Anita Hill, a lawyer who worked for him, accused him of sexual harassment.

“One of the things that has happened in the last, almost four decades in public life is you watch people make a gargoyle of your life,” Thomas said, without mentioning any specifics. “They distort, they lie, they dissemble, they mischaracterize, and they turn you into someone you don’t even know.”

Thomas was speaking at the event at with one of his former clerks, U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Katsas, who was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by President Donald Trump. He told Katsas that he hoped he wouldn’t have to confront a similar effort.

DeSantis introduced Thomas with effusive praise, calling him the “greatest living justice.”

If Thomas is on one side of a Supreme Court case, DeSantis said, “99 percent of the time — maybe more — you figure that must be the right side of the case to come out on.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives remarks during the banquet program at the Federalist Society Sixth Annual Florida Chapters Conference held at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on Friday, January 31, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

DeSantis received a standing ovation by the members of the Federalist Society, an organization that adheres to a strict conservative judicial philosophy that has reshaped America’s courts, including Florida’s own Supreme Court.

Thomas, along with and former Justice Antonin Scalia, is an ardent believer in the “originalist” or “textualist” philosophy, which asserts that when interpreting the law, the literal meaning of the words matter more than the intent of the people who wrote them. Thomas said he explained it to someone in simple terms recently.

“I said to him, ‘If you see a stop sign, what do you do?‘“ Thomas said. “And he said, ‘Stop.’ I said, ‘That makes you an originalist and a textualist.’”

DeSantis, who was a member of the Federalist Society at Harvard Law School, has leaned heavily on the group to fill Florida’s benches. His first three picks for the Florida Supreme Court were vetted by the society’s executive director, Leonard Leo.

Adherence to the group’s rigid jurisprudence has become a prerequisite for judges hoping to get appointed by DeSantis. He has to name two more justices to the high court within the next two months. Last week, the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission submitted nine lawyers and judges — most with extensive Federalist Society credentials.

DeSantis quickly dashed anyone’s hopes that he would name the picks at Friday’s convention.

“It’s my pleasure to be here to announce my next two — oh no, just kidding,” he joked. “Stay tuned.”

The group’s convention this weekend includes some of the most powerful judges and lawyers in the state, including multiple federal judges and two Florida Supreme Court justices and at least five current and former general counsels to DeSantis or former Gov. Rick Scott.

While they ate salad and sipped wine in the convention hall, DeSantis repeated his opinion that judges have too much power, a popular refrain among conservatives since the civil rights movement. He said judges should have a “limited role” and not a role that would “usurp the role of the other branches.”

He also said that judges should not be making decisions based on popular opinion.

“If we’re calibrating decisions based on popular response, why would judges have life tenure in the first place?” DeSantis said.

Thomas has been teaching a two-week course on religion and the First Amendment at the University of Florida, where students protested him on Tuesday, according to the Independent Florida Alligator. One of Thomas’ recent law clerks is a University of Florida graduate.

“We had a blast,“ Thomas said. “It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. .. It sort of gives you a perspective when you get out of Washington.”