Clarence Thomas returns to UF Law for Criser Lecture

By Matt Walker

United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made national news at UF Law in September when he dismissed U.S. News & World Report rankings and suggested that a law degree from an Ivy League school shouldn’t carry more weight than any other law degree. While those remarks – made during the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture in Law – garnered the most attention in the press, they were just a small portion of Thomas’ message to UF Law, which emphasized the importance of positivity and hard work.

Supreme Speakers

Some of the nation’s top legal and government figures regularly appear at UF Law, including former ABA Presidents Stephen N. Zack (JD 71) and Martha W. Barnett (JD 73), former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former EPA Administrator and Climate Czar Carol Browner (JD 79). Since 2005, a string of U.S. Supreme Court justices have visited the campus. Justice Clarence Thomas’ return this fall marked the seventh from a current or former Supreme Court justice in as many years. Here’s a rundown:

September 2005 – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor speaks during the dedication ceremony for new classrooms at UF Law and the Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center.

September 2006 – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at UF Law and helps dedicate the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom in honor of her close friend.

September 2008 – Chief Justice John Roberts judges the Justice Campbell Thornal Moot Court Final Four competition.

November 2008 – Justice John Paul Stevens speaks at the inaugural Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture in Law at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

February 2010 – Justice Thomas visits for the first time to deliver the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture where he candidly interacted and fielded questions from UF Law students.

September 2011 – Justice O’Connor returns as a featured panelist at the inaugural Allen L. Poucher Legal Education Series, held at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

September 2012 – Justice Thomas returns to deliver the Marshall M. Criser

Thomas touched on legal topics, but he also mixed lighthearted humor with hard-won advice for students about the difficulties of law school, and insights into how his experiences growing up in the segregated South helped shape his worldview as an adult.

“I found law school to be as clear as cement,” Thomas said in his opening remarks. “It was a very, very difficult experience.”

He said that the law does eventually reach a point of clarity, but for him it wasn’t until years after he had earned his J.D. from Yale.

“It’s one of the reasons I’ve asked during my visits to spend more time with students,” Thomas said, “to reassure students in many ways that (law school) isn’t always unclear; that it may be difficult and complex but at some point the clouds open and you begin to see things a little better. Maybe it’s experience, maybe it’s maturity. Maybe it’s just life.”

This was Thomas’ second visit to UF Law – he delivered the Criser Lecture in 2010. Thomas dined with students, fielded numerous questions in a casual classroom atmosphere and spoke to hundreds gathered in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard. Before heading back to Washington, the diehard Sooner fan took in Florida’s bludgeoning of Kentucky at the Swamp. “The students asked excellent and broadranging questions,” said UF Law Professor Amy Mashburn (JD 87), whose Introduction to Lawyering classes received visits from Thomas. “Justice Thomas was willing to answer all of them and was extremely warm and approachable.”

His willingness to discuss his personal life before joining the Supreme Court put students at ease, and many were surprised at how easy it was to engage in a discussion with him, Mashburn said. A common thread in Thomas’ advice to students was that they should not allow rankings, prejudices, elitism or bad job prospects to define them.

Mashburn said she also learned a few things from Thomas’ classroom visits, including the fact that commercial cases were largely disappearing from the Supreme Court’s docket because of the prevalence of arbitration clauses. She also learned that he watches “Man vs. Food.”

The Criser Lecture was structured as a “conversation” with UF Law students. Lauren Humphries (1L), David R. Maass (3L), Eric Netcher (3L) and Zack Smith (3L) shared the stage with Thomas in the Marcia Whitney Schott Courtyard at UF Law on Sept. 21, passing a microphone among the group as they asked questions of the justice.

Smith, who is editor-in-chief of the Florida Law Review, said he and the other students met Thomas briefly before the lecture and, along with about 20 other law students, had lunch with him afterward.

“Justice Thomas was very personable in these settings and was genuinely interested in talking to students and answering our questions,” Smith said. “I was impressed with his ability to recall everyone’s names and with the fact that he made a point to speak to everyone in the room.”

Thomas, who graduated from Yale Law School, discussed how the most important mentors he’s had in his life weren’t the ones with the most formal education, but rather it was his family growing up, and the people he surrounds himself with every day.

“I don’t know if you saw the movie ‘The Help,’ but that’s basically where I grew up,” he said. “That’s my family, that’s my neighborhood, those are the people who were the wisest people, they were good people … those people are wise because they’ve managed to get through life in a good way.”

Those were the people who instilled in him a sense of hope and positivity, Thomas said, and it wasn’t until he was surrounded by privileged Ivy Leaguers that he was exposed to, and filled with, a sense of cynicism and negativity. When asked about advice for graduating law students, Thomas said to stay positive.

“I can’t tell you to use my experience because I was decidedly negative when I got out of law school and quite bitter and even quite cynical – that’s why I try to councel young people not to go there. It took a long time to overcome that,” Thomas said.

Smith said one of the points he took away from the conversation with Thomas was that, “America is still a land of opportunity.”

One of the most memorable moments in the lecture came in response to a question about Thomas’ thoughts on law school rankings and how attitudes toward the law school hierarchy can impact the legal profession.

Thomas said he has never paid attention to law school rankings and doesn’t think it should matter when being considered for a clerkship or job which law school someone graduated from.

“There are smart kids everywhere,” he said, “they’re male, they’re female, they’re black, they’re white, they’re from the West, they’re from the South, they’re from public schools, they’re from public universities, they’re from poor families, they’re from sharecroppers, they’re from all over.”

He said that while he isn’t biased against having Ivy Leaguers clerk for him, he intentionally seeks out those who aren’t from the nation’s most elite schools.

Automatically excluding someone from consideration for a position based on the school they went to is the antithesis of what the United States is about, Thomas said.

Thomas stressed the importance of a practical approach to the law.

“Justice Thomas stressed that students should take practical courses and that professors should write articles on practical topics,” Smith said, “which can assist the practicing bar in arguing cases, and judges in deciding those cases.”

Thomas also said that Supreme Court opinions should be accessible to the average person.

“Without condescension we are obligated to make what we say about the Constitution and (the people’s) laws accessible to them,” he said.

The Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture Series was created in 2007 by Lewis Schott (JD 46) of Palm Beach, 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.

A webcast of the Thomas Criser Lecture is available on the UF Law home page at www.law.ufl.edu.