Justice Clarence Thomas accepted the invitation of the University of Portland’s Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture to appear as their featured guest speaker on September 19, 2013. Justice Thomas sat on stage at a table flanked by Professors Gary Malecha, political science, and Bill Curtis, politics and law, in front of a large crowd in the Chiles Center. Justice Thomas explained that he agreed to visit the University of Portland because it had kept a promise to him to help one of its students whom he had befriended. Justice Thomas said, “There is a special place in my heart for people who keep their word.” He answered the professors’ several questions regarding his background and judicial philosophy, as well as questions from students from the University’s constitutional law class.
Although Justice Thomas is known for rarely speaking from the bench, the questions and answers lasted almost an hour, with his good-humor and affability clearly on display. When asked what the founding fathers might say if they could view today’s government, Justice Thomas replied, “Most of what they would say would probably be bleeped out,” and the anti-federalists would probably say, “I told you so!” regarding the power of the federal government and courts. When asked which justice in history he would like to meet, he responded that he would like to talk with Justice Harlan, who penned the “exquisite” dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Justice Thomas said he wished he could have spent more time with Justice Byron White, with whom he served on the Supreme Court for only two years. Jutice Thomas also spoke fondly of Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice. He recalled a visit that lasted several hours wherein he expressed admiration for Justice Marshall’s extensive work doing civil rights litigation. Justice Marshall responded, “I had to do what I had to do, and you must do what you must do.” When asked about influential thinkers, Justice Thomas mentioned the economist Thomas Sowell, and writers Ayn Rand and Richard Wright. When asked how he decides difficult cases, he explained, “The bottom line is you must eventually make a decision,” and “the job has an amazing way of humbling you.”
Justice Thomas told the crowd how much he had enjoyed talking with students in classes at the University of Portland, and that the “most enjoyable” part of his job at the Supreme Court was being connected with his law clerks. When looking for law clerk candidates, Justice Thomas said he looked for intellectual honesty and persons from a variety of backgrounds. He said he often looked closely at candidates from state schools over more elite backgrounds, explaining, “When a person comes from a family who had to choose between braces and the rent, that person usually contributes a different perspective.”
Following the remarks at the Chiles Center, Justice Thomas participated in the annual Red Mass at the University of Portland. The mass is celebrated in the Catholic tradition as a prayer for those whose profession entrusts them with the law and for those who administer justice. A dinner followed the mass.
On Friday, September 20, Justice Thomas visited the judges and staff at the Pioneer Courthouse. He took time to chat and be photographed with everyone, showing his effusive good nature and frequent, deep laugh.