PORTLAND — When Clarence Thomas reflects on his path from Pin Point, Ga., to the U.S. Supreme Court, he credits his college nuns with teaching him the most important word he ever learned. And that word was this:
Thomas has taken that to heart on the court, developing a reputation as the quietest of the current roster of justices. His silence on the court even spawned a nearly seven-year watch waiting for him to open his mouth, a record he only broke in January. Even then, the substance of what he said, much like the man himself, is shrouded in mystery.
Thomas spoke to a capacity crowd at the University of Portland on Thursday in a question-and-answer session hosted by two of the school's political science professors.
Thomas discussed his life, describing "a long, hard road, enormously lonely" from rural Georgia through law school at Yale and appointments to both appellate and the Supreme Court.
Contrasted with his public image as quiet and cold, Thomas spoke long and loud in a deep baritone, laughing easily and often. Thomas makes few public appearances.
Thomas, appointed to the high court in 1991, briefly touched on his confirmation hearings — which included accusations of sexual harassment — calling it "not pleasant," his intellectual development, and his conversion to a conservative judicial philosophy that has guided his two decades on the court.
"Why was a black kid in Georgia reading Ayn Rand?" Thomas said. "I have no idea."
Thomas likened his strict Constitutionalist approach to the law with the way he approached contract disputes. Thomas said judges must start with what is written and then try to divine the intent.
"It makes sense to start out with what you have," Thomas said. "Do you always get it perfect? No. Does it work every time? Not necessarily."
Thomas described an insular, cloistered world on the high court, free from political pressures, but one full of quiet contemplation broken by the necessity of decision-making.
"This job has an amazing way of humbling you," Thomas said. "You realize just how small you are in the universe of things, sitting in your office alone, trying to make a decision."
The friendly, collegial questions rarely delved beyond Thomas' view of the legal world or his personal biography, but included the Supreme Court Justices he would most like to have dinner with — John Harlan, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall — and the president he'd most like to meet — Lincoln.
The media did not have an opportunity to ask questions.
Thomas said the Anti-Federalist members among the Constitution's framers would have difficulty reconciling the modern-day U.S. system of government with their intended government. Thomas also cautioned that interest groups "swarming" elections and confirmation hearings is bad for democracy.
"The only people for whom the job is easy," Thomas said, "are those who've never done it."