Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Symposium Celebrating Justice Thomas’s 30 Years on Supreme Court

This fall — on October 23, precisely — Justice Thomas will celebrate 30 years of outstanding service on the Supreme Court. I was fortunate to be there at the beginning, as I was a law clerk for Justice Scalia when Justice Thomas and his law clerks moved into the chambers immediately down the hall.

To mark the anniversary, the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy has posted an outstanding online symposium of tributes — some personal, some on his legal legacy — by various of his former law clerks. Very much on the personal side, here’s an excerpt from law professor Nicole Stelle Garnett’s beautiful piece, “What I Saw at the Daytona 500”:

After Mass each day, the Justice waited outside on the steps for his “ladies,” as he referred to the two older women (one white, one black) who would regale him with various stories and memories of childhood.  (I remember a particularly animated one involving roller skating on the lot where the Supreme Court now sits.)  No matter how busy his day ahead, he waited—not because he had the time to spare, but because he knew that it mattered to them.  I recently asked the Justice if he remembered them, and he said, “Oh yes, Geraldine.  She died, you know.  The other was Ilsa.  She always accompanied her mother.  I miss those chats.”  Those chats, I believe, capture something important about Justice Thomas—something that we all left chambers understanding more deeply:  There is never anyone more important than the person in front of you.

Geraldine and Ilsa were not the only beneficiaries of this lesson.  One day, he stopped to talk to a Capitol Police officer standing in front of the Hart Senate Office Building.  He addressed him by his first name and asked about his son.  As we walked away, I asked how he knew the man.  He replied that he’d gotten to know him when he worked for Senator Danforth, twenty years before, and that the officer was very proud of his son who was in the seminary.  I marveled that he could remember his name, let alone those details, after twenty years.  Another day, a man who appeared to be homeless walked up to say something like “Justice Thomas, I’m sending you another petition!”  The security detail accompanying us tried to turn the man away, but the Justice waved them off and talked to the man for a few minutes.  As we returned to the Court, he remarked, “You know, these are hard days for him.  It was recently the anniversary of his mother’s death.”  I was stunned:  In a city full of people who spend every conversation looking over each other’s shoulder to see if someone more important is in the room, Justice Thomas stopped to be kind to a homeless man who was mourning the loss of his mother.  Nobody was ever more important than the person in front of him.

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