Supreme Court Justice Thomas Speaks at Reagan Library

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is one of the quietest members on the high court, but he spoke out last night at a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde says the talk centered on legal theory, Thomas' grandfather, and the controversial decision on the 2000 presidential election.

Kitty Felde: It looked it was going to be a long evening.

Clarence Thomas: I was told I that I could talk about anything I wanted to. (audience laughs) So I'd really like to talk about the incongruity between our commerce clause and dormant commerce clause jurisprudence. (audience laughs louder)

Felde: Clarence Thomas did talk about legal issues. But he also talked about his grandfather, the man who raised him and instilled the principles that guide his life and decisions from the bench: optimism, honesty, and courage of conviction.

Thomas: It takes guts to stand up for those principles. Not meanness, not bravado, not machismo. It takes courage.

Felde: The Associate Justice spoke for only 12 minutes, but spent the rest of the hour answering audience questions, including one about the Supreme Court decision that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential race.

Thomas: Oh, I think that that decision was right, and the only thing I certainly would have done any different there was, if I had time, was to write a longer opinion. I just think that the ramifications really had to do more with people who would have preferred a different outcome.

Felde: Thomas compared the grousers to USC football fans who don't like a disputed call by a referee. Thomas made it clear that he believes his legal opinions are all based on what's already down on paper in the Constitution.

Thomas: It is not my Constitution, or my laws to do with as I please, to create theories, to play games. They are our Constitution, and our laws. And my role at the court and as a judge is limited solely to that of a judge, solely to interpret what is already there, put there by those you elect to put it there.

Felde: Thomas described his role on the court as the one who follows legal precedent all the way back to the beginning. Justice Thomas described precedent as one of those very long trains. And you have to imagine the last car in that train is the latest case in that line of precedent.

Thomas: Normally what happens with the very next case is you simply attach one more car to that last car on the train. You have no idea where the train's going, you have no idea what's up front. So I tell my clerks, let's go through every single car until we get up front, because for all we know, there may be some baboons driving this thing. (audience laughs)

Felde: It's a rare day in court when Justice Thomas asks a question from the bench. He brushed off a question about his relative silence.

Thomas: The court historically did not ask a lot of questions. All this yada yada yada is new. The question now, having done the job for 16 years shouldn't be why I don't ask questions. It should be why my colleagues ask so many.

Felde: He suggested some of his colleagues only ask questions to entertain themselves. The packed house at the Reagan Library included Nancy Reagan and former Governor Pete Wilson. Clarence Thomas is in Southern California on book tour, promoting his memoir "My Grandfather's Son."