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Athens, Ga. — Sitting on the stage with Justice Clarence Thomas at the University of Georgia School of Law graduation on May 17 were two class officers, one of whom is headed to work at King & Spalding, the other to Alston & Bird. Their success at landing jobs at big Atlanta firms contrasted notably with the introspective story Thomas told of his 1974 graduation from Yale Law School. Thomas said he sat disappointed at having been “rejected by every firm to which I applied in Georgia,” his home state, to which he longed to return. “I have kept that crop of rejection letters,” Thomas added. But Thomas urged each of the 215 Georgia graduates sitting before him to “be a hero, not a victim.” Heroes, Thomas said, were people like his grandparents — “honest, hardworking, frugal, deeply religious” — people who found something to be thankful for even when times were bad. The graduates and hundreds of friends and family members gave Thomas a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Upon graduating from Yale, Thomas took, he said, the only job offer he received — working for the Missouri attorney general in Jefferson City. Despite warnings from classmates that the post was a waste of his Yale education, Thomas worked his way up over 17 years from the AG’s office to positions with the St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp., with former Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), and with the Reagan administration before joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1990. A year later, after a stormy confirmation battle, Thomas was on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas’ conservative jurisprudence has kept him in the spotlight. While Thomas spoke at Stegeman Coliseum, at a nearby student center Georgia law professor Donald Wilkes Jr. led a protest that criticized Thomas’ decisions on criminal procedure, civil rights, civil liberties, the rights of prisoners, and the writ of habeas corpus. Wilkes said later he estimated that 50 people attended his speech. Also outside the stadium where Thomas spoke, a small band of activists handed out flyers urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan, which the high court is reviewing. Neither issue came up in Thomas’ speech. But University of Georgia President Michael Adams told Thomas from the stage that the commotion over his appearance reminded everyone that universities are about “respect for diversity of opinion.” He added, “I salute the students and faculty for listening to you respectfully.” This article was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service. Jonathan Ringel is a reporter at the Fulton County Daily Report.

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