Reticent US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is actually kind of funny

Meet the real Clarence Thomas.
Meet the real Clarence Thomas.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is known for his extreme reticence and his hard-core conservatism. But there is more to Thomas than meets the eye, it seems, as a June 3 interview revealed.

Thomas almost never asks questions of attorneys during oral arguments, unlike all of his colleagues, and he is often characterized as the most ideologically right-leaning of the nine high court members. Yet in a public interview for the Supreme Court Historical Society (paywall), Thomas was unusually chatty and apparently happy to answer questions, revealing a humorous side and a surprise about his ideology.

It turns out that back in the day, a young Thomas, who in childhood aspired to be a priest, considered himself pretty liberal. Thomas left the seminary, explaining yesterday, “I got angry with the Catholic church over the issue of race. I thought that the church should be the leader of the moral crusade against segregation and discrimination.”

As he has previously said in a speech at the College of the Holy Cross in 2012, Thomas quit seminary school in the wake of the 1968 murder of civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King. Thomas’s grandfather, who raised him, was unhappy about the decision and kicked the young man out of his house. But Thomas found his footing again in college, discovering an interest in the law.

After he graduated from college in 1971, Thomas opted not to attend Harvard Law School. In his recent interview, he said that Harvard was “way too conservative,”  and that he saw himself as “ideologically quite a bit to the left.” As a result, Thomas chose Yale Law School instead because it seemed better-suited to his own worldview. “I know that sounds funny now,” he said, acknowledging his reputation as the ultimate high court conservative.

The justice, who has been on the bench for 27 years—longer than anyone else now serving on the Supreme Court—didn’t detail what caused his ideological shift. But he did point out that the expectation that a black justice should be liberal irks him and explained his disdain for intellectual stereotyping, stating:

People who will get very upset if someone said all blacks look alike are really comfortable saying all blacks ought to think alike. If you said that blacks should not be allowed to go a library, you’d be against that. If you said that blacks couldn’t read certain books in the library, you would say that’s wrong. But now we are so comfortable saying that blacks can’t hold some of the ideas in some of the books in the library. That’s absurd.

That’s not all that annoys Thomas. He hinted that he thinks his colleagues’ relentless questioning of advocates at oral argument is also absurd, though he didn’t say it in precisely those words. The justice didn’t directly answer a question about his own reticence during these proceedings, but when asked whether he thought his colleagues should talk more, he objected humorously, saying, “Oh God, no, don’t say that.” The justices should let the lawyers talk instead of continually interrogating them, he suggested.

Finally, Thomas tried to lay to rest rumors that he will retire soon. “I have no idea where that stuff comes from. People can say things about you and for you that have nothing to do with you,” he noted. “My wife gets alerts,” Thomas explained, referring to news notifications. When she showed him one of these earlier this term about a story suggesting he was planning to step down, it came as news to the justice. He said his response was, “Wow. I didn’t know that.” Thomas has no plans to leave the high court and isn’t tempted by more lucrative positions that might be open to him, adding, “I think I am so blessed to be here, to have the opportunity to live up to my oath, to be a part of this country and the system in this country.”

Indeed, Thomas seems to be having a good time on the high court if his most recent interview is any indication. When asked what he does to relax during the term, he laughed and quipped, “I really don’t have a lot of stress. I cause stress.”

But perhaps the justice was just feeling especially cool with the court’s term soon coming to a close and summer vacation just ahead. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that Thomas told California college students that being on the high court is tough because there’s “no money” and “no privacy.” The justice job is an honor, he said, yet “I wouldn’t say I like it. I like sports. I like to drive a motor home.”

The justice and his wife, Ginny Thomas, are known to spend their spare time traveling the country in a motor home and hanging out among the people, incognito. She told PRI in 2009, “We’ve been in dozens of Walmart parking lots across the country. Actually it’s one of our favorite things to do…you can get a little shopping in, see a part of real America—it’s fun.”