Justice Thomas: ‘There are smart kids everywhere’

Published: October 8th, 2012

Category: Feature


Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture at UF Law Sept. 21 to nearly 600 guests.

By Matt Walker
Senior writer

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

This was Thomas’ second visit to UF Law to give the Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture in Law – having previously participated in the second annual Criser Lecture in 2010. Like his prior visit, this 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 Friday, Sept. 21, passing a microphone amongst the group as they asked questions of the Supreme Court justice.

Smith, who is editor-in-chief of the Florida Law Review said he was interested in speaking with Thomas because “it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit down with a sitting United States Supreme Court justice and ask him questions on any topic about which I was curious.”

Smith 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,” he 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.”

During the lecture, while Thomas touched on some legal topics, the justice’s stories generally proved to be a formidable mixture of lighthearted humor and solid advice for law students, including insights into how his experiences growing up in the segregated South helped shape his worldview as an adult and a look back at the difficulties Thomas had in law school.

“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.

“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 (the law) 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.”

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 the more privileged and elite in New England that he was exposed to a sense of cynicism and negativity.

But that cynicism latched onto him and he carried it with him for a long time. When asked about advice for graduating law students, Thomas again 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 counsel young people not to go there, it took a long time to overcome that,” Thomas said.

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

A memorable moment in the lecture came in response to a question about 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 which law school someone graduated from should figure into hiring for a clerkship or job.

“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 doesn’t rule out 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 did breach more legal-oriented topics as well, emphasizing the importance of a practical approach to the law. Thomas also touched on his appreciation for his position as the circuit justice for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which includes Georgia, Florida and Alabama. He said although he lives in Washington, D.C., he considers the South his home and every time he thinks about being a part of the 11th Circuit he has to pinch himself.

“To know that within my lifetime – I went to segregated schools – to know that I’m part of the circuit that interprets the laws, that’s a big deal to me,” he said.

Thomas recommended that students take practical courses. He suggested that scholarly work would be cited by the high court more often if they were to focus on the practical application of the law:

“Justice Thomas emphasized 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.”

And he 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,” Thomas said.

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. Past speakers have included Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (ret.), Justice Clarence Thomas and former ABA President Stephen Zack (JD 71).

Stories about the lecture have run in hundreds of media outlets nationwide. A webcast of the Criser Lecture is available here.