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Justice Thomas pleads for less “myth-making” of the court and justices

In an op-ed Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, law professor Rick Hasen suggested that “there is something disconcerting about Supreme Court justices becoming political rock stars.” He cautioned against turning the justices into gods and devils. Hasen isn’t the only commentator addressing the hagiography of the justices. Speaking on Monday at the University of Pennsylvania Law School as part of a panel that included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick encouraged members of the media to reconsider recent portrayals of Ginsburg. She suggested that depictions of her as cultural icon and judicial celebrity reduce the complexity of her personality and contributions to the law.

Yesterday at the Law Library of Congress, Justice Clarence Thomas weighed in, echoing Hasen’s and Lithwick’s thoughts. Thomas said he regretted the “myth-making around the court and who we are” as justices and people, which has created a contrast between the “real world” of the Supreme Court and how it is portrayed outside the court. Judges and justices “don’t have the time, energy, or ink to engage in the narrative battles” ascribed to them by some in the media, Thomas said.

Journalists might write that a justice decided a case “callously” – especially a death penalty case – but “those are people who’ve never stayed up in the middle of the night voting on it,” Thomas continued.

Several times in his remarks with Judge Gregory Maggs of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, Thomas spoke about Justice Antonin Scalia. He said that Scalia and he “trusted each other so much” because “getting it right was important to both of us.”

Thomas attributed this similarity with Scalia to their shared Catholic educations. He said that the “beauty of having gone to parochial schools is that they taught us that there was a right way to think about things,” whether physics, history, or other subjects.

Before turning to law, Thomas expected to become a priest. Discussing his decision to leave the seminary, Thomas explained that “it was 1968.” “Anyone here who was around in 1968 knows what that means. The wheels were coming off the wagons in a lot of ways.”

Although he never became a priest, Thomas said that “the sense of vocation never leaves you.” He approached the law as his new “calling.” Although he expected to practice law in Georgia after graduating from Yale Law School, he didn’t receive any job offers in Savannah or Atlanta.

He moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, “and if it weren’t for that I wouldn’t be on the Supreme Court,” Thomas said. “I’d be a tax lawyer or something.”

Thomas said of being a justice, “everything I do is in preparation for doing this job. If you’re called to do it, it consumes you.”

The reason for such effort stems from the justices’ duty to explain the court’s reasoning to the public. Thomas recalled his grandfather’s simple but wise admonition to him in childhood: “If it don’t make no sense, it don’t make no sense.”

Thomas compared judging to climbing a mountain. One sees more of the surrounding area at each higher elevation. The elevation in Thomas’ metaphor refers to experience. With each year, he said, “you see more, you understand more, not because you’re smarter, but because you’ve been doing it longer.”

Returning again to Scalia and the effort they and the other justices apply to their work, Thomas said simply, “we took an oath to do it.”

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Justice Thomas pleads for less “myth-making” of the court and justices, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 16, 2018, 11:00 AM),