Justice Thomas, In His Own Words

Interview with the Federalist Society, National Lawyers Convention

“I had quit the seminary which was the only dream I’d ever really had….I had eschewed all those things….Like most kids who eschew the way they were raised, you’re adrift. And you’re looking for the next vocation. Everybody who’s been a seminarian thinks he or she has a vocation….So that’s your orientation. And I thought that law would be a substitute vocation. Something similar to the priesthood where you did well so you could do good.”

“I was going to become a priest to go and help. I was going to become a lawyer to go and help.”

“The biggest problem that I had with [Jack Danforth] was that he was a Republican. But I got over it when I only had one job offer….It was the best job I ever had.”

“I quit my job impetuously because I do things like that.”

On his appointment to the court: “One thing led to another and I wound up on the court…It was totally like Forrest Gump.”

On his nomination to the D.C. Circuit: “My good friend Ricky Silberman who insisted that I think about it. There were Larry Silberman who counseled me about it.”

“At every turn….there were a series of good people who showed up. Because one of the things that became a priority – if you talk to people who come to new places and they don’t have family, you can ask anybody in this room who don’t have a structured family – you begin to assemble a family….At every point you build a family….You…look for people to fill that in….God sent all these good people.”

“[Justice Scalia] and Maureen became family. It wasn’t that we always agreed in every case….It’s that I could count on him….That I could go and talk to him….He was a friend and a colleague….The person who made it doable was Justice Scalia.”

On the court: “There are a lot of briefs and people do a lot of talking.”

“I don’t know the legal profession that well. I just show up and do my stuff.”

“I try not to read anything about what we do because I was there. I really don’t….that’s hearsay.”

On precedent: [Questioner] “I think it is fair to say that you are the Justice who is most willing to reexamine the court’s precedents?” [Thomas] “That’s because of my affinity for stare decisis?” [Questioner] “That’s what I was going to ask you about. Stare decisis doesn’t hold much force for you?” [Thomas] “Oh it sure does! But not enough to keep me from going to the Constitution!”

On writing separate opinions: “Maybe like a fine wine, it just needs aging….I may lose, but I think I’m obligated…that if you believe that, you write it….Someone should have kept writing that segregation was wrong, regardless of what the precedent was then….It was very unpleasant in my case to go to the court for a variety of reasons. And when you go through that you feel that you are obligated with the blessings that you have…to do your job and to stand up for certain principles….I have been encouraged by my colleagues….Maybe a hundred years from now somebody will excavate and say ‘This guy was out of his mind.’ [But I] remember watching TV sign off at night with the national anthem….I still believe in this stuff. I still believe in the Constitution. It means more to me than just an academic document. It’s really important, so I feel obligated that with the opportunity I am given to be there I try to get it right….You  run the risk in being honest of not looking like the most acceptable person.”

[Scalia on the summer recess, shouting from the audience] “I get outta there as soon as I can.”

On vacation: “I go to Europe sometime only to come back. I would not be characterized as a Europhile or whatever they call each other. I like the United States, I’m sorry. I have nothing against the countries, but I love the United States….”

On serving on the Court: “I love the cloistered life. I was in seminary….This is a calling. This is not that bad. How can you complain?”

How does he choose his law clerks? “Pretty arbitrarily.” [Laughter] “I rely on people I trust. They’ve all clerked for other judges, and the other judges, good friends, send me clerks.” Larry Silberman, Steve Williams, Dave Sentelle, Edith Jones, Diarmuid O’Scainlain. “I don’t care which school they went to….I hire a small percentage from the ivies. I hire quite a few more from the non-ivies. Simply because there are smart kids from all over the place….I try to prefer kids who are from modest circumstances, whose parents did not have all the advantages….I;m not going to bring in kids who disagree on first principles….And I like kids who are not jerks.”

On his pilgrimage to Gettysburg with his clerks: “At the end of the term, people tend to be pretty jaded….I want them after they see a term…to think about the price that was paid for this country to exist….I want them to still believe…and understand why….The point is simply to pull it all back together after you see how the sausage is made.”

On the Gettysburg Address: “This country is not perfect but it’s perfectible….It is worth every day getting up and trying to make it right, trying to make it work. But you can’t do that if you don’t do it on principle.”

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