Clarence Thomas in Knoxville

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stopped by Knoxville last week to deliver remarks to an auditorium full of law students at the the University of Tennessee.

The occasion of Thomas’ visit was Constitution Day, although he was playfully evasive and opaque on most question relating to issues, matters of law or his views of the United States government ‘s founding document.

Asked at one point how he would rule on the federal health care reform package, Thomas shrugged and quipped that like most people in Washington, he hadn’t read it.

He preferred instead to talk about what he described as the supportive relationships and shared respect amongst the members of the court (“The thing that underscores it all, in all the years I’ve been there, and through all the differences we’ve had, I have still yet to hear the first unkind word spoken among my colleagues.”), and some of his past interactions with court luminaries like Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Thurgood Marshall.

Thomas relayed a conversation he had with Rehnquist not long after he (Thomas) was confirmed. Thomas was grappling with the weight of serving on such a powerful and august body, and wondering where “he fit” amongst his fellow justices. Rehnquest reassured Thomas that any feelings of insecurity or doubt he might be experiencing would likely be short lived. “Clarence,” the chief justice told him, “in your first five years you wonder how you got here. After that, you wonder how your colleagues got here.”

Upon meeting Marshall for the first time, the awestruck Thomas told the old civil rights warrior that he envied his courage. Thomas said Marshall “looked at me and he said, ‘I did, in my time, what I had to do. You have to do, in your time, what you have to do.’ That was the only advice he gave me.”

Only the second African American to be appointed to the nation’s highest judicial body, Thomas is typically regarded as one of the few beacons of consistency and principle among natural rights enthusiasts and those who generally tend to hold the constitutional rights of individuals in higher esteem than transient political agendas and policy initiatives.

Thomas, who often dissents even from those he votes with on particular cases, said the most important ingredients of professional fulfillment and personal achievement in his view are the faith and ability trust in one’s own judgment and an embrace optimism and the call of idealism.

“You’ve got to have something that inspires you and keeps you going through the dark days, ” he said. “People try to undercut ideals and principles based on what we do on a daily basis. What we do on a daily basis if by flawed human beings — that doesn’t undermine the ideal. I’ve been in Washington a long time and fought  lot of battles…I had the wonderful experience of getting confirmed. But you do you react to that by becoming a mean and angry person, or do you look for some good? You look for the good, and you always try to pursue it.”

“If you think that smoking bad, I can assure you that negativity and cynicism are far more carcinogenic to the spirit than cigarettes are to the lungs,” said Thomas.

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