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.

Press Releases

Defense Lawyer for ‘American Taliban’ Speaking at UT Law School Oct. 6

From the University of Tennessee School of Law:

James J. Brosnahan, the attorney who represented the “American Taliban” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks will deliver the Wyc and Lyn Orr Distinguished Lecture at the University of Tennessee College of Law on Oct. 6.

The March 2009 issue of the ABA Journal featured Brosnahan as one of the “Lions of the Trial Bar,” seven attorneys past 70 years of age who have “tried some of the most important cases of the last 50 years, dazzling juries and swaying judges.” The previous three “Lions” to lecture at Tennessee were James Neal of Nashville, Bobby Lee Cook of Summerville, Georgia, and Fred Bartlit Jr. of Chicago and Denver.

Brosnahan, a senior partner with the global law firm of Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, accepted John Walker Lindh’s case in December 2001 after receiving a call from the young man’s father. “I told John’s parents that I am not a movement lawyer and that I represent individual clients, not movements,” he said in the ABA Journal feature profiling the seven “Lions.” “I told them if I ever got the feeling that I was being used for the purpose of a movement, that I was off the case.”

Immediately after accepting the case, Brosnahan began receiving death threats via telephone calls, e-mails, and letters. He was forced to hire security guards at his home, office, and for traveling to and from court. The National Review labeled him the “American Tali-Lawyer.”

Brosnahan argued that Lindh was not a terrorist, but rather a teenager who went to study in Yemen and then agreed to join Afghan forces fighting against the Northern Alliance in that country’s civil war. In the end, Brosnahan negotiated an agreement where Lindh pled to lesser charges and received a 20-year sentence.

The lecture begins at noon in Room 132 of the law school. The event is free and open to the public. Brosnahan will lecture from the perspective of a senior lawyer, focusing on future challenges in the law based in part on examples from the past. The lecture will be parts anecdotal, philosophical, and professional.

The Orr lecture series is made possible through the support of the Orrs of Gainesville, Georgia. Wyc Orr, a 1970 UT law alumnus, is a founding partner of the Gainesville firm of Orr Brown Johnson LLP and has been a trial lawyer for almost four decades. He has tried a wide variety of cases, representing both plaintiffs and defendants before juries in 28 counties across Georgia as well as in federal court and courts-martial in West Germany during his days as a U.S. Army JAGC lawyer. Over the past 50 years, Brosnahan has tried more than 140 cases to verdict. He has prosecuted murderers and the secretary of defense, as well as defended the “American Taliban” and the chair of Hewlett-Packard.

Brosnahan’s many notable cases include dismissal of all charges against Patricia Dunn (former chairperson of the board of Hewlett Packard Corporation), lead prosecutor in United States v. Caspar Weinberger, successfully defending the City of Oakland and County of Alameda in the Oakland Raiders litigation and representing El Paso Corporation in all its California litigation during the energy crisis.

“Nothing compares to the electricity of an actual trial, and it is magnified when it is a jury trial,” Brosnahan told the ABA Journal.

Brosnahan turned 75 in January but says he has no plans to slow his work schedule. Four jury trials and two nonjury trials are on his calendar this year. Brosnahan argues both civil and criminal cases and says his standard for taking a case is very low.

“The emphasis on specialization of practices is not good at all,” he says. “I strongly encourage today’s young litigators to take on one or two criminal cases every year. It will make your civil trial practice so much better.”

A native of Boston, Brosnahan graduated from Boston College and later received the Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1959. His courtroom experience includes high-profile cases involving antitrust and competition law, complex commercial litigation, intellectual property and patent litigation, employment law, product liability, and white-collar criminal defense.

His many awards include induction in the State Bar of California’s “Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame,” selection by the National Law Journal as one of America’s most influential trial attorneys, and the 2007 American Inns of Court Lewis F. Powell Award for Professionalism and Ethics. He serves as Master Advocate of the Board of Trustees of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. He is the author of the “Trial Handbook for California Lawyers.”