Justice Thomas delivers Criser Lecture with grace and good humor
by Troy Hillier
As blistering winter weather threatened to snow in the nation's capital on Feb. 4, it was sunny but cool in Florida. Despite the sunshine, 700 law students, faculty and others seated the University of Florida Levin College of Law Marcia Whitney Schott courtyard or standing on the second-floor balcony shivered from time to time as they waited for United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to make his appearance as the college's special guest during the second annual Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture.
After an introduction from UF Law Dean Robert Jerry, Thomas took the stage, saying, "I don't know how you can tolerate this consistently good weather." The resulting laughter from the crowd was a sound that was heard often, as Thomas delighted his audience with his sense of humor.
Thomas, the fifth Supreme Court justice to visit the Levin College of Law in the past five years, came to UF Law with the express intention of interacting with law students, which he thoroughly accomplished during several lunches, dinners, classroom visits and other meetings prior to and after the lecture.
"My wife told me some years ago that it's better to do conversations instead of lectures," Thomas said, "because you get to talk about things people are really interested in, as opposed to what you're interested in."
During the lecture, billed as a "conversation," four UF Law students — Joshua Mize (3L), Leah Edelman (2L), Jon Philipson (2L), and Dwayne Robinson (2L) — asked Thomas a series of pre-selected questions on topics ranging from personal to professional.
After being asked his perspectives of how attitudes toward race have changed, Thomas spoke poignantly about his youth and the frustrations he faced as a young black man in the segregated, Jim Crow South. He recounted his excitement as a high school senior upon receiving notice of outstanding SAT scores qualifying him to attend the University of Georgia or the University of North Carolina — only to be devastated and angered by the realization that he couldn't attend those institutions due to the color of his skin. "I'm not going to gild a lily and tell that you everything was peaches and cream," he said, "because it was not. I was really, really upset for a long time."
But eventually, Thomas said he realized that he was on a self-destructive path, and that he could seek positive reform through the law.
"In the law, I saw a possibility for fairness," he said, "a possibility for change, a possibility to do something to help others."
Having been so cynical earlier in life, Thomas showed that he has little tolerance for it now, especially when that cynicism is directed toward the court.
Noting the attacks on Supreme Court decisions, Thomas said, "I think we do run the risk, in our society, of undermining institutions that we will need to preserve our liberties."
Thomas noted that the criticism comes almost exclusively from those who have not been in his shoes.
"I keep hearing people make up reasons why we do our business," he said, "and, it's fascinating, it's not from judges, it's not from former members of the court, it's from people who don't do the job. It's not easy for anyone — except the people who have no responsibility to do it, for the people who have never had to vote whether somebody dies."
While Thomas' reputation as a friendly and down-to-earth individual was known to the students who shared the stage with him, he exceeded their expectations.
"Speaking to friends at schools Justice Thomas previously visited, I was told that Justice Thomas was personable and very engaging," Philipson said. "However, the words did not do justice to the experience. It felt as if the five of us were sitting around at someone's house — simply sharing ideas and jokes."
Philipson, the editor in chief of Florida Law Review, said that the event was as educational as it was entertaining.
"By inviting judges and justices to the campus, the law school provides us the opportunity to understand judicial opinions and the people who write them and to understand how they arrive at their opinions," he said. "Similar to previous visits by justices and judges, when I read Justice Thomas' opinions in the future, I now have a better understanding of how he approaches the law."
Edelman, a member of the Florida Moot Court Team, was equally impressed. "I think his accessibility surprised me in the best way," she said. "You don't expect a Supreme Court justice to answer that many questions or shake hands and take pictures with everyone in the room."
Mize, the president of the Federalist Society at UF Law and an editor of the Florida Law Review, described him similarly.
"Justice Thomas was engaging and thoughtful throughout the conversation," Mize said. "It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Robinson, a junior research editor of Florida Law Review, said that Thomas' visit provided insight into not only Thomas himself, but others in the public light. "Justice Thomas' visit was more than I could have ever expected," he said. "Personally, it had a profound effect on how I view people in public life."
Robinson added that he has not heard a single negative comment from a student about Justice Thomas' visit. "He had a great impression on the school," he said, "and hopefully we made a great impression on him.
These comments reflected the feelings of the audience, who enjoyed the Thomas' humility, insight, and especially his sense of humor. "Justice Thomas has one of the best laughs I have ever heard," Edelman said, "and I'm glad that we got to hear it so often."
The lecture was one of just many events that Thomas attended during his visit to the law school. Wide eyes and whispers of "Oh my gosh" greeted Thomas as he surprised first-year students on Wednesday by unexpectedly showing up in their classes. While a visit to only one of the three first-year sections was planned at first, Thomas insisted on visiting all three.
After the lecture on Thursday, he met with a group of student leaders, answering questions ranging from his legal writing pet peeves to the wisdom of looking to other countries laws for guidance.
Thomas also joined students and the local legal community (see sidebar story on the Federal Bar Association dinner) for meals and meetings, where mingled and conversed in smaller groups.
The Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture Series was created in early 2007 by Lewis Schott (B.A. 1943, LL.B. 1946) of Palm Beach, Fla., as a tribute to his fellow UF Law alumnus, former UF President Marshall Criser (JD 51). The goal of the speaker series is to host prestigious national and international speakers every year on topics of particular interest to law students.
For more information on Justice Thomas' visit, including a photo gallery and video of his Feb. 4 lecture to University of Florida Levin College of Law students, visit www.law.ufl.edu/news/events/2010/JusticeThomas/.