One of the side benefits of the Supreme Court's long winter recess is that justices head out of Washington for speaking engagements, and Justice Clarence Thomas in particular gets to prove yet again that he is incapable of giving a dull speech.
In appearances Tuesday at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., and then Thursday morning at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, Thomas fielded questions from students, quoted the likes of Garth Brooks and Clint Eastwood, revealed his movie preferences and said he had "zero tolerance" for mistakes or tardiness from his law clerks.
At UF Thursday morning, he was even asked if he'd like to ride the circuits as justices did long ago. "I'd love to," he said with a laugh. "I have my RV!" Thomas, who often spends his summers on the road in his RV, said he'd like the idea of riding circuits even better if he could target college towns in the south during football season.
Thomas said he remembers his student days at Yale Law School when legal dignitaries would come to speak but would spend no time with students. He has resolved to go directly to students when he visits, because of the direct exchanges he can have with them. Thomas said he especially enjoys hanging out with law students "at their joints, with dead animals on the wall, and old tags ... and food I can't eat." Thomas told the UF students, "I will go back to Washington energized" because of the encounters.
That was clear during both appearances, as viewed on college video streams here and here. Though hoarse from a cold, Thomas answered at length and with passion. At Stetson he even touched briefly on the Citizens United campaign finance case that found him in the majority, as noted in this New York Times article. Thomas defended the concept of First Amendment rights for corporations, and said he had stopped going to State of the Union addresses years ago because it has gotten "very uncomfortable" for justices to attend.
But Thomas ranged well beyond that subject, touching on topics including:
• Hiring his law clerks: "I choose them arbitrarily," Thomas said flatly. He has former clerks help screen candidates suggested to him by lower court judges, then interviews the finalists. "I choose the kids I like," adding that he won't hire a candidate "whose glasses are on sideways," or someone he can't stand talking to.
• Where his clerks are drawn from: Thomas took some pride in the fact that bloggers have called his clerks "TTT -- third tier trash," as he put it. Thomas clerks in recent years have come from Rutgers, Creighton, George Mason, Utah and Notre Dame, Thomas said with pride. "I have a preference for non-Ivy League law clerks. I'm not part of this new or faux nobility." Now that he is the circuit judge for the 11th Circuit, which includes his native Georgia, Thomas said he will be picking more clerks from that circuit.
• Trial judges: Asked if he'd ever want to sit as a trial judge, as the late chief justice William Rehnquist once did, Thomas said he did not think he'd be qualified for the "hard work" of district court judging. "That's the front line," he said. "I see us as second-guessers." Thomas quoted actor Eastwood who said in "Magnum Force": "A man's got to know his limitations."
• Favorite movies: "I'm not a movie buff type person," Thomas said, and often watches the romantic comedies his wife prefers. But he mentioned "Gran Torino" and the animated "Up" as recent favorites.
• Regrets: Thomas said, "I regret having to leave the South," specifically his native Pin Point, Ga., near Savannah. "Even the paper mills are fine with me -- the marsh, the moss, that's fine with me." But if he had stuck to his desire to remain there, Thomas guessed he would be a tax lawyer in Savannah now. He recalled the Garth Brooks line, "Thank God for unanswered prayers."
• Characteristics of a great lawyer: Lawyers need to be honest, conscientious, and thorough, but most important of all is credibility, Thomas said. "Your credibility is your calling card," he asserted. Reputations spread quickly, he warned. "We're way up there, but we have lunch. We talk."
• His favorite constitutional amendment: "You want me to say the second, right?" Thomas joked when asked his favored part of the Constitution. "I'd be in big trouble." Thomas added that "I like the whole thing," but then paid tribute to the 13th, 14th and 15th as "really important, or I'd be in a rice field right now."
• On life now: Thomas said that in his younger days, "I was really a jerk, very unpleasant," because of pent-up anger over issues including race and life in Washington. Now, though, Thomas said, "I'm content with life." He added, "If I was to leave the face of this earth today, paint a smiley face on my face."
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.