Justice Thomas reflects at Harvard Law
Justice Clarence Thomas has become known as a quiet presence on the Supreme Court. But members of the Harvard Law School community got to hear him speak—and he did so with great humor and warmth—during a visit to the law school on Jan. 29.
As part of the Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture Series, Thomas participated in a conversation with Dean Martha Minow, after a day that included meetings with faculty and students. In introducing Thomas—a graduate of Yale Law School—Minow noted that he had turned down his admission to HLS because he’d found it “too large and too conservative.”
Minow stated that Thomas had held a great variety of legal positions before being nominated to the Supreme Court, including chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She asked him to reflect on his career path.
Thomas said that initially he had no sense of where it was headed. “When you don’t have a model,” he said, “you just do what’s in front of you.” He likened it to when “we used to work in the fields, row after endless row of work in the sun. … You internalize that discipline to do things.”
Minow observed that this Court is known as especially collegial, and Thomas is often cited as having much to do with that. “Then why don’t they vote with me?” he said with a chuckle. “They just kindly disagree.”
When it comes to the most useful advice he’s received on approaching his job, Thomas said it came from Judge Laurence Silberman ’61 of the D.C. Circuit. When Thomas became a circuit judge, Silberman suggested that he approach every case with this question: What is my role in this case as a judge—not as a citizen, not as an activist, but as a judge?
Thomas said the opinion that is his model and that he often reads for inspiration is Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, which rejected the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Growing up, “the notions expressed in that dissent were the things that we, in an unlearned way, held on to,” he said. “They told us that when all else was going in another direction, this was something that was headed in the right direction.”
When Minow asked about what makes for effective advocacy before the Court, Thomas cited flexibility and thoroughness, but he put even more emphasis on honesty. “There is no advocate who wants the justices to say that he or she has been less than candid with the Court,” he said. “People are looking at you askance from then on.”
Questioned about what is most challenging about his job, the justice quickly replied “the loss of anonymity.” And when Minow asked what he likes best, he just as quickly answered that it is his law clerks. “They are my kids,” he said. “And finally,” he added, “with respect to the job, I like the idea that I get to live up to my oath.”
Among his heroes, Thomas includes Justice Thurgood Marshall, but most of the people he admires, he said, are not well-known. His grandfather, who raised him, is at the top of the list. Raised by freed slaves, he grew up with a dignity that the South tried to deny him.
Thomas himself had words of wisdom for the law students, including: “Do well. Do well so you can be in a position to do good.”
Justice Ginsburg on defending equal rights
“It was hard enough to get a job if you were a woman, but if you were a mother, then it was impossible,” recalled Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58, once a struggling young lawyer in a male-dominated field but now a veteran justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Through determination and hard work, Ginsburg eventually reached the top of her profession. The legal scholar and tireless defender of equal rights reflected on her career during a discussion with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow on Feb. 4.
Ginsburg recalled the frosty climate that greeted women hoping to enter the field of law in the early ’60s. She said that former Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to take her on as a clerk after her graduation, and she couldn’t find a job in a law firm despite being the first woman to serve on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review, and eventually graduating at the top of her class.
Thanks to a friend, Ginsburg, who was married and the mother of a young child, finally secured a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. She went on to become a law professor and a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court.
Despite her husband’s death from cancer in 2010 and her own battle with the disease, Ginsburg remains a steady presence on the Court. At age 79, she is its oldest justice. During a frank talk with Minow that was peppered with personal anecdotes, Ginsburg offered the crowd a window into her life, as well as a glimpse of the inner workings of the nation’s highest judicial body.
To open the talk, Ginsburg touched on her time at Harvard. She attended HLS with her husband, Marty, and though the school declined to grant her a degree when she transferred to Columbia Law School to follow her husband to New York City, she said she looks back on her Harvard years with fondness. She recalled the support she received when her husband fell ill during his third year and how their classmates rallied around them.
“The help that we got from our friends here, I will remember all the days of my life,” she said.
Becoming a law professor, she began to focus on issues related to sex discrimination, she told Minow, in part because women were starting to make complaints about being treated unfairly in the workplace that “they had never made before.” It was a “tremendous opportunity for me,” she said.
Ginsburg, who went on to argue a series of successful gender equality cases before the Supreme Court, said she, her colleagues and other equal rights supporters tried “not to take the Court by storm, but to lead them there in small degrees.”
During a question-and-answer session, Ginsburg discussed her position on Roe v. Wade, the Court’s 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion, and countered critics who suggest she is “against” the ruling. Ginsburg said she agreed with the judgment the Court rendered, “dealing with what was the most extreme law in the country, where a woman could get an abortion only if it was necessary to save her life.” But she disliked the sweeping scope of the decision. Instead of simply striking down the Texas law and proceeding by “slow degrees,” the ruling made “every law in the country … unconstitutional in one fell swoop.
“That’s not the way the Court ordinarily operates.”
Ginsburg also took issue with the notion that the Court should be responsible for fixing society’s ills.
“It’s rare that a court will move unless the people want them to. … Before every major change, it was people who saw that the laws were wrong, wanted them to change, were fighting to capture other people’s minds, and then trying to get legislative change,” that pushed issues along. ... “It has to be the people who want the change, and without them no change will be lasting.”