Justice Clarence Thomas holds court with Canisius students

By Kevin Daley
Editor Emeritus

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (center) talks with Canisius professors Bob Klump, Esq. (left) and Dr. Peter Gaile (right)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (center) talks with Canisius professors Bob Klump, Esq. (left) and Dr. Peter Gaile (right)

“Fellow justices, law clerks, police officers, cafeteria workers, janitors – all basked in Thomas’seffusive good nature. His rolling basso laughter frequently pierced the silence of the Court’s hushed corridors,” Raichle Pre Law Director Robert Klump, Esq. read to Canisius students, reciting select passages from Jeffrey Toobin’s acclaimed review of the U.S. Supreme Court The Nine. Klump presided over the 25th annual Phi Alpha Delta pre law fraternity trip to Washington, D.C. from the front of a Niagara Scenic coach bus, addressing several dozen Canisius students in advance of their audience with United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday April, 14.

The meeting was the work of months of meticulous planning; Klump consulted former Thomas law clerk John Yoo extensively throughout the process. Yoo, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and former deputy assistant Attorney General, spoke at Canisius as part of the Raichle Speaker Series several years ago, and is a close confidant of the Justice. Klump also circulated copies of Thomas’s memoir My Grandfather’s Son in advance of the trip, as fodder for potential questions.

Seated beneath the gaze of former Chief Justices John Marshall, Roger Taney, and Salmon Chase, PAD students awaited Thomas’s arrival with hushed enthusiasm. True to form, his gregarious laugh carried through the Court’s marble hallways, preceding his arrival. One of the nation’s most prominent citizens entered the room unaccompanied. One imagines the Court’s justices clad in the splendor of their flowing black robes, but Thomas donned a conservative grey suit with two buttons, wide lapels, and a smart crease. His shocks of white hair and Ivy League pedigree added yet more dignity to the august surroundings — gilded mahogany walls and fine towering windows out of which New Yorker columnist Howard Brubaker predicted the New Deal would be thrown. The students were thus surprised when Thomas revealed he and his wife were prolific motor-homers.

It was on one of his extended RV trips across the country that the Justice first encountered Clarence, New York, while barreling through Western New York en route to points west. He has not since returned to the town which bears his name. Thomas had no prepared remarks, other than to share the news the Nebraska Cornhuskers women’s bowling team had won their fifth national title (Thomas is a dedicated Huskers fan.) The ensuing question and answer lasted well beyond allotted time.

Questions ran a wide spectrum, encompassing NCAA sports, constitutional controversies, politics, and study methods (he navigated exams at Yale Law School by condensing 30 page outlines into a single index card.)

Pseudo-senior Jacob Schamel satisfied the group’s civil libertarian quota, posing questions concerning the drug war, the war on terror, and the militarization of American municipal police forces. “You’re back again?” Thomas quipped when Schamel pressed his last question. Junior Arrianna Hart, incoming president of Phi Alpha Delta, put an affirmative action question to Justice Thomas. He remains famously resentful of his time at Yale Law, convinced his J.D. smacks of racial preference. Always silent during oral arguments, Thomas has spoken during proceedings only once in recent years, to work in a jab at pass/fail Yale. After matriculating, he exiled his diploma to the far reaches of his basement, bearing a price tag pronouncing its value at 15 cents.

He explained he viewed affirmative action programs as beneficial to institutions instead of students, rendering minority students a mere aesthetic in the service of sanctimonious white liberals. But Hart, seemingly fearless before one of the leading jurists of our time, probed deeper. She parried skillfully, despite apprehension.

“I was extremely nervous before asking Justice Thomas about his views on affirmative action,” Hart said. “I think it’s natural to appear apprehensive because you do not want to appear foolish or ignorant when in the presence of a Supreme Court Justice. I thank Dr. Gaile for giving me the extra push I needed to ask the question.”

Dr. Peter Gaile, retired Political Science professor, accompanied Phi Alpha Delta to Washington, as has become his custom.

“While some may think it is ironic that a black man opposes affirmative action, I respect his stance and do not fault him for it,” she added. Born in gripping poverty among Georgia’s creolite Gullah people, the nation’s second black Supreme Court judge embraced a justice-oriented radical leftism before his gradual intellectual conversion toward right wing politics and textual jurisprudence.

Thomas oscillated between academic and affable with striking speed, setting aside as many questions as he answered; nor did he hesitate to put questions back to his audience. Klump asked Thomas which of his predecessors were, in his estimation, overlooked by history. He put the question back to Klump almost immediately.

The protracted exchange covered nearly a century of Supreme Court history, including Justices Robert H. Jackson (who practiced law in Buffalo’s Ellicott Square Building) and Willis Van Devanter. Senior Criminal Justice major Lucas Madia also recited a litany of grievances with the justice system at Thomas’s urging, who seized on Madia’s survey to discuss sentencing guidelines and the administrative state.

None of the Canisius delegation pressed the Justice on his views of the pending marriage equality case; the Justices will hear arguments on Obergefell v. Hodges later this month on Tuesday, April 28. Legal observers expect the decision, which could legalize same sex marriage across the country, will play a leading role in shaping the legacy of the Roberts Court.

As noon came and passed, Thomas made his way toward the rear of the room, to stand for pictures which each member of Phi Alpha Delta beneath a portrait of the nation’s first Chief Justice, John Jay. Despite the merciless demands of cert petitions and opinion writing, he spoke with each students for several minutes, inviting a handful to visit him in his chambers in the coming years.“I know that our meeting with Clarence Thomas was definitely a high point for PAD as a student organization at Canisius,” Phi Alpha Delta president Amanda Oppermann said. “I can speak for everyone on the trip when I say that it was an amazing opportunity that I am extremely thankful for.”

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