Patrick Borchers is a contributing writer on Leavenworth St.
All of this should come with a bias warning that he and I are friends. The fact that he and I are friends is due to a series of serendipitous events rather than some grand achievement on my part. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
When President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, I knew little about him. He had been a judge on the influential D.C. Circuit for a bit over a year. Prior to his stint on the D.C. Circuit he had been named by President Reagan to be the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It was obvious to me that he was judicially conservative, as that term is generally defined. Time has shown that he has perhaps the most consistent commitment on the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution in accordance with its original intent.
In case you think that this is a cover for a politically conservative agenda, it doesn’t always work this way. For instance, originalists have shunned constitutional limits on punitive damages and often sided with criminal defendants against sentencing enhancements and the like that are not determined by juries.
Of course, most remember Thomas from the explosive confirmation hearings in which Thomas was under fire based on the testimony of Professor Anita Hill. Opinion polls then and now show that people are deeply divided about which one was telling the truth, to the extent that they contradicted each other.
I can’t tell you what went on between them, because I wasn’t the proverbial fly on the wall. It’s easy for an interaction between two people to result in different understandings about what happened. Thomas has told me things that make me think that there are more aspects to the story than generally known. But I’ll leave it at that.
Thomas has always had a special relationship with Creighton Law School. His wife, Virginia (Ginni) Lamp Thomas, is a graduate. He gave the address at the Law School’s centennial anniversary in 2004. He is a huge Husker football fan; he can tell you where the recruiting class ranks and what he thinks of the coaches. He loves Creighton basketball; he and I went to a game and he was booing the refs and still has a t-shirt that the student section gave him. Oh, and he teaches for a week at Creighton Law School in February every other year.
When I was Dean of Creighton Law School he started teaching a seminar on constitutional adjudication in alternate years. A lot of his desire to keep coming back has to do with his friendship with Creighton Professor Michael Fenner (with whom Thomas co-teaches), who stuck by him when other people were abandoning him in droves during the confirmation hearings.
The public perception of him is that he’s dour and grumpy – scarred by the confirmation hearings – and thus doesn’t ask questions during Supreme Court arguments.
This is so silly that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ve asked him about his lack of desire to ask questions, and he harkens back to – as he calls them – “giants” of the Court like Rehnquist and White and notes that they asked questions much less often than does the current crop of Justices. Besides, he says – gasp – he’s more interested in hearing the lawyers make their arguments than getting a preview of what his colleagues will say in conference.
As to the “dour” impression, I wish everyone in the world could hear his belly laugh. It echoes through the Law School. If anyone wants a cure for the winter blues, just drop by and listen to him.
Thomas one of the most astute lawyers I’ve ever met. His Supreme Court opinions are on average 25% shorter than those of his colleagues. Why? As he says: “I’m not interested in gum flapping.”
Last week, when Thomas was at Creighton, he noticed a young man who appeared to be nervous about to be going into an interview with a law firm. So Thomas sat down in the chair next to him and asked him what was bothering him. The student explained and Thomas went through likely interview questions and offered advice on how to answer them.
This wasn’t an “I’m on camera and I know it” moment. I wouldn’t know about it except that the student told me.
So here’s a Supreme Court Justice helping a young law student he doesn’t know do his best to get a job.
That’s the Clarence Thomas I know.