Thomas defends ideals of court

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at a dinner Tuesday and will talk at the courthouse dedication.

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."

Thomas speaks

Here are select quotes from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's speech to the Augusta Bar Association on Tuesday:

On judges and the law

"In my view, judging is something that is greater than each judge. It is something that affects our society in a way that nothing else we do can. We make decisions to change our country and our neighborhoods and our cities and states."

"In my view, when the country has been at its worst is when judges abandon their job as judges -- in order to be popular, to go along with fads . . ."

"We are given limited authority to judge our fellow citizens, and we are given that by our fellow citizens. They ask us them to keep from what? Arming themselves and fighting each other. Becoming lawless. We become that important point in a civil society that keeps people from each other's throats. We are the ones who are called upon to solve disputes in the past that have led to gunfights, wars, feuds. But we have also failed and we have rendered decisions that have led to wars, gunfights and feuds. That's when we have failed."

On the process of working with fellow justices

"In that room, when we discuss First Amendment, abortion, Second Amendment, death penalty, pre-emption, commerce clause, the cases of great consequence -- Bush v. Gore -- I still have yet to hear the first unkind word."

"If law is to have any integrity, we have to give it that integrity."

On so-called "cynics" in society

"There will always be people who will pick at the -- whether or not the system works. They are always negative. You have to wonder about these negative people. What exactly are they perfect at?"

"What monument is built for all that negativity? You are negative sometimes in order to make something better. You criticize it in a way to improve it. There are things wrong in this country that have to be improved, but you don't just keep nagging and nagging and nagging. But at some point it's got to stop. At some point too much is too much."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse dedication.

WHEN: Richmond County Superiour Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet will open the ceremony at 11 a.m. Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver will follow at 11:15 a.m., and U.S. SUpreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at 11:30 a.m.