A relaxed and upbeat Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told the Federalist Society Thursday night that he feels “obligated” to state his sometimes unorthodox views of the law, even if they go against precedent.
“If you look like a fool, so what?” he said, adding that his respect for precedent is “not going to keep me from going to the Constitution.” His remarks won a standing ovation from the more than 1,300 attendees at the society’s annual dinner at D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel.
Now in his 22nd year as a justice, Thomas said “I feel blessed every day” working as a justice. He even resisted the sentiment expressed by other justices that they need the summer recess to take a break from their colleagues. Thomas said he was in no hurry to leave the company of his fellow court members in the summer, prompting Justice Antonin Scalia to shout from the audience, “I get out of there as soon as I can.” Justice Samuel Alito Jr. also attended.
Thomas, 65, offered his observations during an on-stage conversation with Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. She praised Thomas as a “steady and committed originalist,” and “a friend of the Federalist Society for so long.”
As Sykes asked Thomas about his childhood as well as his tenure on the court, Thomas in his answers portrayed himself as a joyful man at peace with his job and his life. Recalling his first career path that began and ended in a Catholic seminary, Thomas said he has grown to view his current position as “like the priesthood. This is what I was called to do.” He said he finds even the most boring cases fascinating, and loves his law clerks like family. Thomas even had positive things to say about his education at Yale Law School, which he used to describe as worthless. “The experience was beneficial to me.”
Thomas could not resist a light-hearted swipe at news coverage of the court. When Sykes asked about the increased attention paid by media including SCOTUSblog, Thomas said “I know nothing about any of that.” He continued, “I try not to read anything” about court proceedings, “because I was there … That’s hearsay.”
Neither Thomas nor Sykes mentioned the protests lodged Wednesday by liberal advocacy groups Common Cause, Alliance for Justice, and U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-New York) against their participation in what the groups viewed as a fundraiser for the Federalist Society.
The code of judicial conduct bars federal judges from using the prestige of their office for fundraising purposes. The organizations filed a complaint against Sykes with the 7th Circuit–-the first time they have done so, though they have protested previous appearances by judges at the Federalist Society.
Since the code does not officially apply to the Supreme Court, the groups lodged a protest about Thomas with Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who did not attend the banquet Thursday night.
Just hours before the banquet, the society issued a statement in response to the protests: “The Federalist Society annual dinner is not a fundraiser. It is a part of our national convention, and we actually lose money on it. That is the case this year, and it has always been the case.”
Alliance for Justice and Common Cause fired back that the event is a fundraiser, and the fact that it does not turn a profit is irrelevant. The printed program for the banquet Thursday night thanked several organizations for “their generous support of the 2013 annual dinner,” and listed several gold, silver and bronze sponsors. The main “sponsoring law firm” was Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.