Calling the building "inspiring" and its namesake a "trailblazer," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas dedicated the new Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse with a short speech beneath the gaze of the historic statue of Lady Justice.
Thomas, 62, seemed to reference the century-old copper statue as he noted that in decades past, there were two sets of laws -- one for whites, one for blacks -- which upset the delicate balance of justice.
"I hold fast to that simple promise described on the gleaming marble above the Supreme Court of the United States -- equal justice under law," he said. "That is the promise that this building represents and the ideal to which Judge Ruffin devoted himself and to which I daresay that many of us devoted themselves. To balance the scales."
As he did Tuesday night in a speech to the Augusta Bar Association, Thomas seemed to defend himself against criticism of his conservative judicial record and stance against affirmative action programs.
"We can only hope that this courthouse will always be a place of refuge from the shifting tides of interests and that judges who sit here will always be duty bound to no interest except the impartial application and interpretation of our law and our Constitution," he said.
To uphold justice, judges must often make decisions that pit them against an angry public they serve, Thomas said.
He referenced the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that legalized segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal" and he recalled the threats many judges received after the Supreme Court overturned the case with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, declaring unconstitutional laws permitting racial segregation in the country's public schools.
Thomas said upholding the rule of law requires "the courage to act with principle and firmness."
"When, as in Plessy, a court distorts the law to achieve a particular outcome, not only does the court cause injustice in the case before it, but it damages the very concept of the rule of law and the fabric of society is indelibly stained."
At one point, Thomas seemed to allude to his own views on affirmative action, citing his family's history with segregation while growing up in the Pin Point, Ga., community near Savannah.
"In the days of segregation, with barely concealed anger and exasperation, my grandfather longed for a day when there would be only one set of books for all citizens, one set of laws," Thomas said. "Sadly, even today, when rights are no longer determined ultimately by race, some expect that race should still determine a person's ideas or ideology. And though the libraries and schools are no longer off limits based on race, certain ideas available there are off limits for those reasons."
Like Thomas, John H. Ruffin's widow, Judith, received a standing ovation from the crowd, which included the city's judicial and political elite and many workers from the nearby courthouse.
With weather that Thomas noted was much cooler than the Georgia May he expected, the ceremony proceeded smoothly until a woman in the crowd collapsed during Richmond County Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet's introduction.
Drawing gasps from those around her and concerned looks from Thomas, the woman was quickly helped up by a medical crew after having apparently fainted.