Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas at the Law School

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas came to the law school to speak the other day. He lead two sessions: one in the morning geared towards the 1Ls, and one in the afternoon for everyone else. I couldn't make the afternoon lecture, so I sneaked into the 1L session and listened in. He mainly did questions and answers, which I thought was semi-risky for such an important public figure. I guess because he's not a politician, and because he's experienced at doing this, he has more latitude to speak off-the-cuff.

Here are some quotes I wrote down:

  • CT: First year [of law school] was clear as cement!
  • CT: You'd think I was in a concentration camp or something and I had to find a way to fill my time -- law school.
  • CT: In the 18 years I've been there [on SCOTUS] I've yet to hear an unkind word in our conferences.
  • Q: How many hours a day do you work?
  • A: Less than 24 hours a day.
  • CT: I don't like excerpts because people have agendas when they excerpt cases. (Kinda true, right? I've never thought about it. Our books are filled with excerpts from cases mixed with explanation from the authors, but now that I think about it, you can't really present part of a case without showing some bias. It's like piecing together quotes -- you can get them to mean whatever you want.)
  • Q: What do you think the future of affirmative action is?
  • A: It'll always be on shaky ground because of the 14th Amendment.
  • CT: [Totally nonchalantly]: One thing lead to another, and I ended up on the Supreme Court.
Here's the question I asked: It seems like, the more I learn, the more I become aware of how much information there is out there that I don't know. That, coupled with the fact that law school has trained us how to argue both sides of cases, and it's made it harder for me to take a firm position on an issue. How do you decide when it's close, when both sides are persuasive?
  • CT: You just have to vote. You have to take a position. That part doesn't get any easier for some cases. Don't think we're any different from you in that sense.
That's been my main question in law school. How do I prepare myself to argue both sides of any issue, but keep some personal positions consistent? His answer wasn't the most satisfying, but it was practical.

  • Q: What do you think about the RIAA cases where damages for illegal downloads are outrageously high?
  • A: Hey, it's California, it's Hollywood. Who knows!
  • CT (jokingly): I'm off my medication, that's why things are so fascinating.
  • CT: I don't like politics. I like law, I like rules.
  • Q: What's been the biggest change in your life as a SCOTUS justice?
  • A: Well, people look at you everywhere you go. You start to feel sorry for the animals at the zoo!
He raised some good points about excerpts in casebooks that I'd never thought about. I'll continue to ask my question, because it's been the central quandary of law school for me (and growing up in general). But I did like his answer -- sometimes there are no answers that are satisfying and perfect. Sometimes you just have to make it work, Tim Gunn-style.


J said...

How awesome that he visited your law school. Good question too. That is the struggle of any lawyer, I think.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, not "lead," but led.

Eric Merrill said...

The issue of distortion is huge in casebooks. Sometimes its a symptom of bias. Sometimes the authors just miss a critical element of a decision and you're left with something less than convincing.

In addition to that, reading cases is a skill that must be learned. If all the "unimportant" bits are cut out, you'll never learn to identify that which is critical.

Thanks for the post.