U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a packed dinner crowd of Augusta's judges, lawyers and politicians Tuesday that while discourse in American society seems to be growing coarser and angrier, the Supreme Court remains a bastion of respectful disagreement that honors the justices of the past and the high ideals of its mission.
As he shifted from outtakes of his youth in rural Georgia to his early days practicing law, Thomas reserved much of his roughly 30-minute speech at the Augusta Bar Association's Law Day Banquet to draw a distinction between commentators and "cynics" who demonize those with opposite opinions with a Supreme Court that has not "disintegrated into the unfathomable conduct that we see in public discourse."
Specifically, Thomas seemed to answer critics of the court's decisions, adding that it often appears those talking about the decisions appear to have never read the cases.
"I think there is a disease of illiteracy or laziness, because just the commentary will tell you they haven't read it," Thomas said at the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites.
Drawing on a college football metaphor, Thomas said those who talk about the court have already picked their team.
He said he avoids reading that type of work, but lamented that the public and most lawyers probably do not.
"You don't go to a Georgia fan to get commentary on the University of Florida, because it's not objective commentary," Thomas said. "Unfortunately, much of the commentary about the court is from the standpoint of people who have vested interests in particular outcomes, particular policies or particular results. Do you think you are getting an honest assessment?"
Serving as a Supreme Court justice is a "humbling experience" like no other, Thomas said. It is one that "teaches you ... you do not have all the answers."
It's an experience that provides much room to learn from others, he said.
Thomas recounted meeting with Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose retirement in 1991 led to Thomas' nomination by President George H.W. Bush.
"He said, 'I had to do in my time what I had to do. You have to do in your time what you have to do,' " Thomas recalled Marshall saying.
From Justice William Brennan, Thomas said, he learned to not "change your mind unless you're persuaded." And he learned from Justice Lewis Powell that "when you think you belong (in the Supreme Court), it's time to leave."
For most of his 20 years on the court, Thomas said, he has sat between two justices -- Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and David Souter -- with whom he rarely agrees but whom he still considers friends.
"Why?" Thomas said. "Because the process, the job of making the opinions is really difficult, and it is done as a team. We disagree, we tug, we pull. Every member that's been appointed by different presidents, with different points of view, has been a good person. How we have been this fortunate is beyond me."