Patterico's Pontifications


Behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court (Updated)

Filed under: Judiciary — DRJ @ 4:32 pm

[Guest post by DRJ]

There’s something fascinating about the unknown and that may explain why the Supreme Court intrigues people. It’s only in recent years, basically since the publication of Woodward’s The Brethren, that the general public had an inkling of what went on behind the scenes at the Supreme Court.

It’s especially interesting to read about the everyday things that happen at the Court or among the Justices, and Richard Miniter’s description of a dinner conversation with Justice Clarence Thomas provides some insight.

Miniter begins by proclaiming Thomas a “born story-teller” who laughs deeply at other’s punch lines and can produce a clever one-liner as well:

“… [H]ere is the one-liner that will probably be all over the Internet tomorrow. Thomas was talking about how surprisingly positively he has been received in campuses around the country over the past two decades. It is mostly the faculty, not the students or the public that are tough on him. Of course, there are some law schools he does not expect an invitation from. “About the only way I would get invited to Columbia is if I was a Middle East dictator with nuclear weapons.”

Thomas tells stories of his interactions with people – those who know of his judicial status and those who don’t recognize him at all. He seems to enjoy meeting people, and that’s reinforced when you learn Thomas enjoys traveling cross-country in his “massive” RV-style bus – towing a Corvette. Thomas is rarely recognized during his travels, and he may like it that way. Most RVers enjoy meeting and getting along with people more than impressing them with status.

This perception is reinforced when Miniter points out that people get along with Thomas once they meet and get to know him:

“Thomas said that others have approached him at events, saying that their views about him had changed just by meeting him. In fact, Thomas said pointedly, he has been treated graciously everywhere he went. In the black community, most of all.

It is only among Washington partisans and professors that he creates any controversy at all, he said.”

Thomas “proudly” said he would not meet with the Supreme Court press corp to promote his book – which means he pointedly included Jan Crawford Greenburg in his interviews – unlike other Supreme Court Justices. And he laughingly denied Bill Kristol’s inquiry whether he would run for president in 2012. If he weren’t a Supreme Court Justice, Thomas would want to be a small business owner in the south, driving his Corvette and bus and meeting university football players. These simple pleasures make him “the freest man on the Court.”

Thomas credits Sandra Day O’Connor with creating harmony among the Justices on a personal level by insisting they spend time together at lunches, and he declares himself not that interested in clerks with Ivy League educations as those who come with good recommendations from people he trusts.

Miniter concludes with Thomas’ description of a lunch with C. Bowden Gray that must have given him peace after his stressful confirmation process:

“Five or six years after he arrived on the court, Thomas had lunch with C. Boyden Gray, Bush’s judge-picker, at the University Club. *** Thomas asked him if he (Thomas) was really the most qualified person for the opening at the Supreme Court. The idea that he might have been nominated because of his race gnawed at him. (Pause for a moment and listen to the pain in his question.)

“Yes,” said Gray.


“Well,” Gray explained. “No one asked what the criteria was.” The president wanted someone who would not bend in office to suit the sirens at the New York Times. Thomas had endured more than 30 hostile hearings when he was chairman of the EEOC and he never backed down. He did what he thought was right and let the chips fall where they may.

Miniter concludes by asking “Whatever your views on Clarence Thomas, isn’t that the singular quality we want in a Supreme Court justice?”



UPDATE: Here’s a different view of the same dinner conversation from Mary Katherine Ham:

“On what he would have done if he hadn’t been a Supreme Court Justice:

“I’d probably have been a small-to-medium business owner in a rural Southern area. I’d like to coach football or baseball and just be part of my community.”

“I’d like to drive 18-wheelers. I kind of like the equipment,” he said, at which point he shared a couple stories about driving around the country in his RV bus, stopping at truck stops in order to live a little part of the dream.

He said there’s an art to visiting a truck stop, filling up, acting like you know what you’re doing. “You’ve got to be professional…You don’t go in a truck stop if you don’t know what kind of engine you have,” he said.”

More at the link.

5 Responses to “Behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court (Updated)”

  1. Which “Sirens”? Tom Friedman? David Brooks? Judy Miller?

    David Ehrenstein (7f3593)

  2. Linda Greenhouse?

    She’s not really someone I’d consider a “siren” in the traditional sense — but she does have influence.

    Patterico (bad89b)

  3. Maybe he meant “sirens” in that they wail repetitively at an annoying pitch with the expectation that people ought to just get out of their way?

    CT LEO (f266f8)

  4. CT LEO: You mean Dahlia Lithwick?

    Alan (f1706f)

  5. (I know she’s not NYT, but the description otherwise fits Lithwick like no one else.)

    Alan (f1706f)

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