Clarence Thomas talks law, issues at Willey

The U.S. Supreme Court justice fielded questions from law students.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke Wednesday at Willey Hall in front of an audience of more than 800 people. Thomas addressed important issues of today, his unique judging style and the need to remain down-to-earth while on the bench. He also offered advice for prospective law students. The event, which was billed as a conversation, consisted of Thomas fielding questions from University of Minnesota faculty, but primarily from the audience, which was made up mostly of students. Thomas said he enjoys speaking with students because they have honest questions and are not contaminated by self interest. Earlier in the week, he met with students in small groups and met with faculty. Thomas, who made several references to his love for sports, said one of the highlights of his visit to the University was the opportunity to have lunch with Tubby Smith. âÄúItâÄôs not all about me, just mostly,âÄù Thomas said to laughter from the audience. He kept the audience entertained throughout the event, with jokes about the other justices on the Supreme Court and about his wifeâÄôs NCAA menâÄôs basketball tournament bracket, but he also addressed serious issues. Thomas, who has served on the Supreme Court since 1991 when he replaced Thurgood Marshall, said the most difficult cases for him are the ones where his heart tells him to do something that the law will not allow. He made reference to the Haitian refugee case from the early 1990s where the United States had to turn away Haitians seeking refuge in America. Thomas said his favorite cases are the ones that affect the least amount of people and no damage is done. When asked which legal figures have had an impact on the way he judges, he said Justice John HarlanâÄôs dissent in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case is âÄúthe essence of the way I like to judge.âÄù Thomas said he likes to listen to the person impacted by the decisions, which is one of the reasons he says the Supreme Court is pushing away authority to the states, saying âÄútruly we are in the ivory tower.âÄù He said often times peopleâÄôs perception of their own circumstances are quite different than what the experts say. âÄúItâÄôs your life and a part of liberty is you make your own decisions,âÄù he said. When asked about whether affirmative action is still useful, Thomas said America is currently on dangerous grounds and that âÄúit will come back to haunt you if we keep playing that game.âÄù âÄúWe need to get government out of the race business,âÄù Thomas said. He said his style is different than many of the other judges on the Supreme Court because he likes to listen to the lawyers and rarely bombards them with questions. When asked for advice for law students in attendance, Thomas said candor, preparation and honesty are crucial because every argument has a flaw, and lawyers have to admit it, otherwise judges will let them âÄúhangâÄù themselves. Timothy Johnson , associate professor of political science at the University, said he thought Thomas had a good time and was impressed with the students in attendance. âÄúAt the end he clearly came over to the section where all the students were and was much more interested in their questions than anyone elseâÄôs,âÄù Johnson said. Paul Olin, a law student at St. Thomas University , said he was impressed by how down to earth Thomas was. âÄúHe said that the Supreme Court sits in an ivory tower but while heâÄôs clearly far more advanced in his thought process than I am, I felt like he could understand [me],âÄù Olin said.