FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas met with a group of high school students Wednesday for a long-arranged interview session on C-SPAN. This was the first public meeting by any Supreme Court justice since the high court’s historic 5-4 ruling Tuesday overturning the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to allow manual vote recounts, dashing Vice President Al Gore’s bid for the presidency. Here are excerpts from Justice Thomas’ interview:
Well, good morning. You all have exquisite timing. If you’d come a day earlier, I think we would probably not be able to do this. If you’d come a day later, I probably would have collapsed by then. (Laughter.) …
The last few weeks have been exhausting, I think, for the entire court, but in a lot of ways it shows the strength of our system of government. Think of some of the turmoil you may have heard or seen about the issues that have occurred over the past few weeks, at least from our perspective, and then consider the court as an institution. I can still say, after the events of this week and all the turmoil, that in nine-plus years here, I’ve yet to hear the first unkind word… .
The reason I say that is because with so many of the issues that we deal with, not only are they exhausting, but they’re complicated, they stir passions and strong feelings; people have strong opinions. And when people have strong opinions, what do they do? There is a real tendency, if not temptation, to begin yelling at each other, to begin the very emotional replies to each other.
Now, people up here are human beings. They’re passionate. But our responsibilities require us to do what? They require us to make reasoned decisions. Now, what happens, I think, often is that the cynics and the skeptics will say nobody makes reasoned decisions. We’re all upset and we all make emotional decisions or we make self-interested decisions… .
If you look at my official photograph, you see that it bears faint resemblance to me. (Laughter.) It’s a few pounds lighter, and I only have a few grey hairs in that picture; now I only have a few hairs. (Laughs.) And what I have of that is grey. But going into my 10th term, … I can honestly say to you all that the effort here is to not be self-interested; it is to fulfill our oaths.
And I can say that with respect to my colleagues, I believe deeply that each of them think that they have fulfilled their oaths. That’s why I can say, and even in dissents, I respectfully dissent. Respecting what? I respect you. Your opinions, your efforts to live up to your oath. That’s the hallmark of this institution. And if we don’t have that in a society where we disagree, then we have anarchy. And if we have anarchy, we don’t have a society.
So I think that this institution is precious. Something Justice [Lewis] Powell said, when he was still alive, to me as we would occasionally have lunch, and that is that you never feel as though you belong here; you just feel honored to have had the opportunity to serve… .
Now, with that opening, I am going to try to respond to all your questions. If I can’t respond — particularly I’d try to avoid the case [Bush vs. Gore] that we had this week because I think it is still too close to current events. You can talk about the court. And there are no bad questions. If I can’t answer, I will just simply tell you I can’t answer. But have at it.
Q: … I was wondering, how do you separate your emotions with your cases?
JUSTICE THOMAS: That is a very good question, and it’s an effort that is central to what we do. First of all, when I first became a judge, I was on the Court of Appeals for a very brief period. And one of my more senior colleagues gave me a bit of advice that I have thanked him for routinely. He said, “Remember that your question to yourself when you pick up a case file is, ‘What is my role in this case as a judge; not as a citizen, not as a partisan, not as a representative of anybody, but as a judge.’ ”
When I do that, if I have any prejudices about anything in a particular case, I usually try to be very honest with my clerks about those prejudices and honest with myself about what those prejudices are. Then what I attempt to do is to lean against those prejudices, and to ask them, if they see at any instant when I am bending because of the prejudice and I have no other reasons for it, to point it out.
But I think you always have to be on guard against your self-interest and you[r] prejudices, because once you — I think once you cease — or once you allow yourself to make decisions based on your prejudice, you’re lawless, and we have no authority to do that. And if I reach that point, then I think it’s time for me to leave… .
When I came to this town in 1979, I knew very few people. And one of [the] things I attempted to do was to get people to meet with me just to talk with me, to give me some advice, to give me a sense of what it’s like to make hard decisions, like the question you asked. You know, we all have prejudices, and you want to know how do you do it, how do you put it aside.
But I do it simply to let you see something other than someone’s rendition of what this institution’s about, because it’s yours. This is what you’re going to inherit. It’s your Constitution. You know, when you take your government class, sometimes it’s taught almost as this thing that’s out there. But think about it a little bit different[ly] when you go back to government class. This is yours… .
This is your country. This is your Constitution, your Supreme Court… .
Q: Justice Thomas, what grounds does the court use to decide to hear a case that deals with a topic that they have previously made a ruling on?
JUSTICE THOMAS: Oh, what grounds do we decide — it’s basically the same thing — even if you’ve decided a case, I mean, whether it’s [a] First Amendment case or a Fourth Amendment case, a Fifth Amendment case, Eighth Amendment case, you’ve heard it all before at some point.
But there’s always one more problem you had not anticipated. And so what you look for is that you assume now there’s [a] federal issue, because as our Constitution — but then you look among our courts’ appeals, and you — the state courts of final resort, and see if there’s some confusion out there.
If there’s enough confusion, then we will — with four votes of my colleagues, we will vote to grant the case and bring it here, to hear it again, if it’s a significant problem. That’s basically it. There’s no other agenda or anything of that nature.
Q: Mr. Thomas, what does our system of government hold the greatest allegiance to above all else? …
JUSTICE THOMAS: Oh, let me just try to pick through that. I think it all starts with the liberty, I think, and the sense of inherent equality that flows from being human beings. If we don’t have that, then there’s no reason to have self-government, because self-government assumes that we have free will, and that we are different, and we do have liberty, and that we will simply then order our lives, would give up a bit of that in order to be governed people… .
Q: Justice Thomas, how do you want to be remembered upon leaving the Supreme Court?
JUSTICE THOMAS: … I’d like to be remembered as having done the job not with arrogance, but with humility, because trying to solve big problems that you can’t quite get your arms around is a humbling process… . it’s humbling to have to solve hard problems, because there are no quick and easy answers. The only people who have the easy answers are the people who don’t have the responsibility to make the decisions.
Q: … I wanted to ask what idea, person, or event do you think has had the most influence on your life.
JUSTICE THOMAS: Oh, that’s a great question. The greatest influence on my life was that of my grandparents… .
… My grandfather was a strong, honest, honorable man who could have been angry, had every reason to be angry and mean. He was abandoned, never knew his father. [His mother] died when he was 9. He went to live with his grandmother. She died when he was 12, and she had been a freed slave. And then he went to live with an uncle, who had 16 kids… . And yet he wasn’t angry and mean… .
And then he reaches back, when he’s almost 50 years old, and takes in two little boys, who were — who — literally, but for him, we would have been dead. I mean, we would have been in big trouble. We were statistics just waiting to happen. But he says, “I’m going to raise these boys.”
… My grandmother was saintly… .
Q: Justice Thomas, I was wondering, what effect, if any, do the political affiliations, not of the justices of the Supreme Court, but of the majorities in Congress and of the president, have on either what cases you hear or how will you decide your cases?
JUSTICE THOMAS: … The answer is, none. They don’t try to influence us and they don’t. We happen to be in the same city. We may as well be on entirely different planets… .