U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Gulfport, Florida - "It humbles you!"
Humbling is how US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas describes his nearly two decades on the bench, an experience he shares with Stetson University Law students. One of his most difficult cases came early in his career as a justice, during the repatriation of Haitian refugees in the early 90's.
"It literally broke my heart," Justice Thomas told the students. That case reminded the justice of advice given to him by a DC district judge, "The first question you ask yourself before you start a case is: what is my role on this case as a judge?"
Known as a conservative member of the court, Justice Thomas says he tries to uphold the original meaning of the United States Constitution. "I like the structure of the Constitution and the structure is our biggest protection as opposed to the Bill of Rights."
He reminds the students constitutional law is more than a subject in law school, "It's about our country. It's about how we deal with the government. It's about whether we will be ruled or governed by consent. It's about how we participate."
Justice Thomas says personal feelings are checked at the door when deciding on a case. "Not as a citizen, not as a Catholic, not as a black person or Corn Husker fan, but as a judge. You limit your role as a judge. That's what I do."
One student asked the justice about President Obama's criticism of a recent Supreme Court ruling during the State of the Union. Justice Thomas did not attend the State of the Union and says he rarely goes, "I don't go, it has become partisan. It is very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there. There's a lot you don't hear on TV, the cat calls and hollering, and under the breath comments. We decided not to go. Some new members go, that's fine," says Justice Thomas.
Students also came looking for guidance as they begin a law career.
"He said best thing about any attorney is that they are honest and thorough," recalls 24-year-old Jacqueline Kent from Illinois. The 61-year-old justice adds preparation is also key to be a good lawyer.
Kent adds, "One other important point he made the law does not solve all the problems and we have to be careful with it."
Besides Justice Thomas' legal insight, the students say it's his personal story from his childhood to his early days as a lawyer that inspires them.
Justice Thomas grew up poor in Savannah, Georgia, raised by his grandfather during the days of segregation. He entered the Catholic seminary to join the priesthood, but left to become a lawyer. His first job didn't come easy and having heard that, one student tries starting at the top.
"Do you know anybody hiring this summer?" asks Jumba Mugwanya, a 23-year-old law student.
Justice Thomas laughs and responds, "Let me know, I've got my resume too." But he did offer the young man some advice.
"Keep the faith when you look for the job, keep the faith," says Mugwanya.
And like Justice Thomas, you just never know where you might end up. He says, "I'm an ordinary person to whom extraordinary things have happened."