Justice Thomas gives students VIP treatment at U.S. Supreme Court

Published: October 28th, 2013

Category: Feature

From left, Wallace, O’Keefe and Haskins stand outside the Supreme Court of the United States, which is currently under repair from earthquake damage.

From left, Lauren Wallace (2L), Emily O’Keefe (2L) and Kim Haskins (2L) stand outside the Supreme Court of the United States, which is currently under repair from earthquake damage.

By Jenna Box (4JM)

When United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas visited UF Law at about this time last year, Emily O’Keefe (2L), Kim Haskins (2L) and Lauren Wallace (2L) all looked forward to his lecture. They never imagined they would be offered an experience of a lifetime and gain a mentor, too.

The three women were selected from a lottery to have dinner with Thomas at New Deal Cafe in Gainesville with about 12 others during his visit. For O’Keefe, the dinner alone was enough to evoke excitement.

“I couldn’t believe that I was getting this opportunity at the University of Florida,” she said. “I thought that because I didn’t go to an Ivy League school I wouldn’t get cool opportunities like this, but I was clearly wrong.”

But the dinner was just the beginning.

Thomas surprised the students with an invitation to visit him in Washington, D.C., to attend oral arguments. Almost a year later, on Oct. 7, the three made the trek to the High Court.

Haskins, Wallace and O’Keefe were surprised with VIP treatment upon their arrival to the Supreme Court — they bypassed lines of velvet ropes and were led through special hallways and even had reserved seats for the arguments.

“The oral arguments were very cool, and the Supreme Court is pretty amazing,” O’Keefe said. “It was interesting to see an attorney totally flop on an oral argument in front of the Supreme Court.”

But, it turned out watching the arguments was not all Thomas had planned for the trio. The group met with Thomas in his chambers and they got a personal tour of the courthouse.

“We were thrilled just to attend oral arguments, so when we found out we had a meeting scheduled with Justice Thomas too, we were just giddy with excitement,” Wallace said.

During their hour-long afternoon conversation, they discussed the arguments they’d just watched, the quality of the lawyers and a law school education. At one point, Thomas rummaged through his desk drawer and pulled out his high school yearbook. He related to the three women by sharing memories, telling them to never lose hope — to look at how far he’d come since then.

“One of the best things he told us was that we are entitled to our dreams, and that we shouldn’t let anyone take that away from us,” Wallace said. “He told us not to … listen to anyone who tells us we can’t do something.”

The fact that Thomas took time out of his day to meet with three law students and encourage them seemed “surreal,” Wallace said.

“He made us feel right at home, as if it was no big deal that three UF Law students were hanging out in a Supreme Court justice’s chambers,” Haskins said.

“It was really something else,” O’Keefe added. “(He was) so real and so personable.”