PUBLISHED:October 25, 2013

Justice Clarence Thomas shares his journey from the South to the Supreme Court

Justice Clarence Thomas

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas invoked the memory of his grandfather multiple times as he told Duke Law students about his journey from the segregated South to the U.S. Supreme Court during a recent visit to Duke Law.

During a wide-ranging “Lives in the Law” interview conducted by Dean David F. Levi on Oct. 21, Thomas said his grandfather influenced his thinking in every respect, including in matters of judicial philosophy.  “There was a way he told us to think about things and be honest,” said the justice, who was raised by his grandparents after spending his early childhood in an impoverished tenement apartment in Savannah, Ga.  “I have met a lot of people in my life.  I still think, without any doubt, my grandfather’s the greatest single human being I’ve ever met or read about.  And my grandmother is as saintly a human being as I’ve ever met or read about.” 

His 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush “was their victory,” Thomas said.  “It was because of their hopefulness that I was able to be at Kennebunkport,” the location of the Bush summer home where the nomination was announced.

Thomas met with several student and faculty groups during his daylong visit to Duke, even conferring, over lunch, with Duke men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski.  “We straightened out some theories of motion offense,” said Thomas, a self-described sports fan. 

“A good place, with good people”

A “hard but idyllic” childhood near Savannah was foundational for the 65-year-old justice.  “When we were there, people gave us hope,” he said.  “Even in the face of all that was happening and all the things that we couldn’t do, and all the limitations, there was a hopefulness that’s not in the neighborhood now. … It was a good place, with good people.” 

When he couldn’t access the segregated library, a librarian would bring a week’s worth of books for him to Catholic Mass, he said.  “Librarians were insistent that I learn how to read, and they wanted me to develop and I prayed for that love of reading and that love of learning.  They were helping nourish it, because it was unusual in that particular neighborhood,” he said. 

While Thomas had his sights on a career in the priesthood as a high school seminarian, his plans changed during his first year of college in a Benedictine seminary. 

“The ’60s happened.  I got filled with hate and anger, mostly over the race issue,” he said, recalling the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  “Cities were burning.  And suddenly this nice kid turned into a demon, an angry black man.”

When he left college and “went home angry,” and with a liberal political bent, his grandfather kicked him out of his home, Thomas said.  “So now, I’m a homeless kid.  A homeless, angry kid.”

Always a good student, he soon became “a Holy Cross angry kid,” referring to the Jesuit-run college in Worcester, Mass., where he completed his undergraduate studies.  “Holy Cross was great for me,” he said.

Looking for vocation, establishing a career

Becoming a lawyer represented a relatively easy transition from seeking a vocation in the priesthood, Thomas said.  “When you still believe, you still keep waiting on a calling, this was the next thing.  How do you help?  How do you go back to Savannah?  How do you participate in righting the wrongs in Savannah?”  Going back to Georgia was his goal, he said. 

Although he held a number of his professors at Yale Law School in high regard, Thomas found his “greatest teacher” in Pearlie Carter, an investigator at New Haven Legal Assistance where he worked throughout law school. She was opposed to such macro solutions to problems of urban poverty, certain they would yield unintended consequences, he said.  “We rode around in all these little neighborhoods.  I didn’t know Northern, urban poverty.  I knew Southern poverty and rural poverty.  Those are quite different.”

Another influential contact from law school was John Bolton, who went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of President George W. Bush. 

“He was conservative and I was way out on the left, so I thought he was not a good person,” Thomas said.  “But he found my wallet and returned it and I got to meet him.  He treated me very honestly and decently and gave me some advice about studying that helped me from then on, [regarding] outlining and reducing outlines.  He always treated me, not as a black student, but as a fellow student.  And I really appreciated that at Yale.”

Unable to find a job in Georgia after graduating from Yale – “or New York or Philadelphia” –, Thomas, who by then had a young son, accepted a job from John Danforth, who was then attorney general of Missouri.

“I had to go work for a Republican – that was really hard,” Thomas joked.  “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, employment-wise.  I met a good man.  That’s what I tell young people:  All else being equal, work for the person. He was a good man, and he taught me things about character and honesty.  He never asked you to do anything wrong.  He turned out to be a really wonderful boss.”

The work was equally wonderful, said Thomas, whose fellow assistant attorney general and office mate was John Ashcroft, a future U.S. attorney general.  Thomas recalled arguing a criminal appeal in the Supreme Court of Missouri – “in a state of total panic” – just three days after being sworn in to the state bar. He went on to handle tax cases.  “I was the tax lawyer for the state of Missouri, which is fascinating.  I was, like, 26 years old.  Who the heck would leave me in charge?” 

After working at Monsanto as in-house counsel for four years, Thomas took another job, as a legislative assistant, with Danforth, who was then in the U.S. Senate.  In 1981, he joined the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for Civil Rights, and in 1982 he assumed the chairmanship of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC).  Thomas called it “the best training” for his current job on the Supreme Court.

“We had to learn patience, grace, steadiness under fire,” he said, noting that he loved the people he worked with.  “I cannot overstate how challenging those years were.”

“… how would I like to be treated?”

Thomas was just 41 years old in 1990 when he was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The president nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court on July 1, 1991. 

Each step of his career served as a “building block” for the next thing, Thomas said, directly addressing his student audience. “There are little things that you pick up along the way – how you conduct yourself, how you do your job, how you deal with other people, how you treat people.  I have been places with people who I would otherwise respect, and I watch what they do when they pass one of the cleaning people, or the [servers] at the tables.  Are they officious, or do they treat them as they would like to be treated?  All those things you can learn in any job,” he said.

Treating others the way he would like to be treated is an approach he takes even in crafting his judicial opinions, he said, in response to Levi’s observation that his opinions and dissents are always respectful in tone.

“You have to understand, having grown up in Georgia when I did, going to schools in the South, was a hurdle I had to get over,” he said.  “There are lots of things in life you have to get over.  You learn, in that process, to be gracious and to treat people in the way that you have liked to have been treated.  And this opinion writing process, and in dealing with my colleagues, I always think of that.  If I was saying something in disagreement with one of my colleagues, how would I like to be treated?”

That philosophy underlies, too, his famous silence during oral argument.  “The poor lawyers,” he said, joking about his colleagues’ tendency to pepper advocates with questions.  “How can you hear a point being made when nobody’s allowed to talk?”

In spite of his feeling that “they talk too much” in court, Thomas spoke warmly of his fellow justices.

“My colleagues are wonderful people, and it makes working on hard things that much better.” 

A family of law clerks

Thomas, for whom Katie Yarger ’08 is currently clerking, told his student audience that he deliberately hires the majority of his clerks from non-Ivy-league schools.

“My clerks this year are from Duke, Virginia, Georgia, and one from Yale.  I think I’m going to keep it that way:  One ‘Ivy’ and the rest from other schools that are excellent.  And the reason for that is I had grown up believing, very strongly, in this democracy, that if you work hard and excel then you can rise to the top and get these opportunities.  And I have found fabulous kids at a lot of different schools. I just love my law clerks.”

While they are in his chambers, all four of his clerks work on every case, with one taking the lead and the other three offering input in every part of the case, from early discussions through editing opinions assigned to the justice.  “Everybody is involved.  It’s inefficient, but it has the advantage of being very thorough,” Thomas said.  “It allows me to get different perspectives from each of the law clerks.  And as a result, I can think about it from different perspectives.”

The qualities he looks for in prospective clerks, he said, include intellectual honesty and good work habits, and a willingness to help make hard decisions in a principled way.  “What I promise my law clerks is that when they leave they will have clean hands, clean hearts, and clean consciences.”  He gathers with former clerks for lunch once each month. “Anybody who’s in town can show up in D.C. to see this sort of family that I have of kids who are proud of the work we’ve done over the years.  And I’m proud of them as their families grow and as they prosper.”

Thomas, who kept the students in his capacity audience laughing through many parts of his “Lives in the Law” interview, chatted with them informally for more than an hour during a subsequent reception in Star Commons.  “It was a pleasure to meet Justice Thomas one-on-one,” said Toni Adeeyo ’14, an LLM candidate.  “He was warm and seemed as pleased to meet us as we were to meet him, engaging those who came up to him in brief conversation.”

Justice Clarence Thomas with Chris Girouard ‘15Chris Girouard ’15, who worked at the Missouri General Assembly before enrolling at Duke and spent his 1L summer in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, enjoyed having a chance to compare notes with the justice.

“We talked about Jefferson City, work in the Missouri AG’s office, Justice Thomas’s former colleagues who are still involved in Missouri politics, and other parts of the state we have each visited,” said Girouard.  “Near the end of the reception, we spoke about college football and the prospects of his Nebraska Cornhuskers and my Missouri Tigers.  I really enjoyed meeting Justice Thomas and have been telling friends about how gregarious, charismatic, and funny he is.  On the bench, he has a reputation for being reserved and quiet.  In person, he is anything but.”