At UK, Clarence Thomas talks about his upbringing, Supreme Court

jhewlett@herald-leader.comApril 5, 2012 

His joking remarks gave his audience little doubt about his political views.

After congratulating the University of Kentucky men's basketball team for winning the school's eighth NCAA national championship this week, Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, told a capacity crowd Thursday night at UK's Memorial Hall: "Maybe in this type of environment, we could redistribute some of those."

When asked whether he read The New York Times every day, Thomas replied, "Oh, God, no!"

Thomas was at UK to deliver the 13th Roy R. and Virginia F. Ray Lecture. But the lecture was more like a living-room chat, with UK law school dean David Brennen, American Bar Association president and UK law school alum William T. Robinson III and UK law professor Stephen Clowney asking Thomas a variety of questions while the four men sat onstage.

Thomas, 63, described himself as a "no-frills guy" who doesn't play golf or tennis, or drink or smoke. He said he went to a Cracker Barrel restaurant with three non-lawyer buddies for his 60th birthday.

As he left no doubt about his conservative leanings, Thomas also left no doubt about his feelings for his grandparents while talking about his autobiography My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir, or about his view of the Supreme Court.

The justice said he wrote his 2007 autobiography to honor his grandparents. When asked why he described his grandfather as the greatest man he ever met, Thomas responded, "Because he was."

Thomas said his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, with whom he and his younger brother lived in Savannah, Ga., while growing up, fought for racial change, was never embittered and considered education his "holy grail." Thomas said his grandfather was never harsh and always honest.

He said if his grandparents were present, he would "kiss their feet and thank them."

The justice also had good words for the community in which he grew up. He compared the rural Georgia area to the setting of the movie The Help.

Despite all of the troubles, he wouldn't trade the neighborhood for anything, he said, adding that there was order and peace there.

"I was treated a lot better in the South than I was ever treated in the North," he said. In his high school, where he was the first, or one of the first, black students, "nobody ever said I was inferior."

Thomas described the Supreme Court as a "wonderful place" that "might be better than we deserve." He said the other justices are "good people" and his friends; he's never heard an unkind word among the nine justices when they discuss legal cases. He said he would like to introduce each person in the audience to his colleagues.

There's more discussion about legal issues in writing than in spoken words among the justices, and sometimes unanimous rulings can be very tricky and very difficult, Thomas said.

He said he spends a lot of time reading about history, economics and other subjects, and reading old court opinions to help him in his job. Do this job long enough, he said, and the depth of your thinking increases.

As a law student at Yale, he said, he was a "meat and potatoes" guy who took traditional courses, such as tax law, and wasn't interested in "'what-am-I-interested-in' courses."

"I told my clerks I'm just a 'get rightest,"' he said, further explaining that he tries his best to get things right.

Jennifer Hewlett: (859) 231-3308. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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