Thursday, February 04, 2010

Justice Thomas' Florida Vacation

Escaping the snow and ice (and more snow and ice!) of Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., was not likely foremost in his mind when he made his travel plans, but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas demonstrated good timing when he chose to make a mini-tour of Florida law schools this week.

On Tuesday, Justice Thomas -- who rarely (if ever) speaks during Supreme Court proceedings, though perhaps less rarely delivers public speeches -- gave an address to students at Stetson University's College of Law in Gulfport, in which he defended the Court's recent campaign finance law decision in the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.

According to the New York Times:

“I found it fascinating that the people who were editorializing against it were The New York Times Company and The Washington Post Company,” Justice Thomas said. “These are corporations.”

The part of the McCain-Feingold law struck down in Citizens United contained an exemption for news reports, commentaries and editorials. But Justice Thomas said that reflected a legislative choice rather than a constitutional principle.

He added that the history of Congressional regulation of corporate involvement in politics had a dark side, pointing to the Tillman Act, which banned corporate contributions to federal candidates in 1907.

“Go back and read why Tillman introduced that legislation,” Justice Thomas said, referring to Senator Benjamin Tillman. “Tillman was from South Carolina, and as I hear the story he was concerned that the corporations, Republican corporations, were favorable toward blacks and he felt that there was a need to regulate them.”
The St. Petersburg Times elaborated on Thomas' remarks, quoting him as saying:
"If 10 of you got together to speak, you would have a First Amendment right to speak and a First Amendment right to free association. Now what if you wanted to form a corporation?"

Later, another student pressed him that the decision could politically disenfranchise those without a corporation's resources.

Thomas seemed to acknowledge the point, but also cautioned: "The law can't solve all our problems."
The local paper also explained how Thomas came to make his visit:
Two factors brought Thomas to Stetson: his friendship with U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich of the Middle District of Florida in Tampa, a Stetson grad, and Thomas' appointment as circuit justice for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. It's his job to decide on stays and other matters for the court, which includes Florida.

Thomas has a passion for reaching out to law students, said Stetson professor Michael Allen. What few public appearances the justice makes are often at law schools.

"It is difficult to convey how rare of an experience it is for any American law student to have with one of the Supreme Court justices," Allen said.
WTSP-TV, a Tampa Bay CBS affiliate, reported that Thomas offered his views on the Constitution in general:
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."
Thomas also reflected on his own days as a law student, according to radio station WUSF:
"I've sat where you all are sitting," Thomas said. "Wondering if I was going to get a job. Wondering what I was going to do next. Wondering how I was going to repay my student loans. Wondering how I was going to buy Infamil for my baby."

Thomas spoke at length about growing up in segregated Savannah, Ga. He portrayed it as a kinder, gentler time, where neighbors helped neighbors. Where he could bicycle safely to Mass before sunup. Where - as he put it - if you caught too many fish, you could give one to your neighbor and get some corn back in return.

"I still have reflections of segregated school and saying the pledge allegiance to the flag - proudly," he said. "Patriotic, proudly. People fighing to be part of a war when they were living under segregation because they're proud of their country. We weren't always fighting each other about who had more rights and who had less. It's like our family, whether we get along or not. And in some sense, And it some sense the one thing we can regain is it's our country, and it's worth keeping. And it's our Constitution, and it's worth interpreting right."
(WUSF has a link to the audio of Justice Thomas' remarks.)

Jamal Thalji of the St. Petersburg Times reported in a second article about Thomas' views about SCOTUS itself:
Thomas professed his love of count[r]y and the Constitution. He said he is most proud of how the Supreme Court goes about its work defending both.

"I would say one of the hallmarks of the court is civility," he said. "What we are trying to protect is larger than us."

But the court's role, he said, is often misunderstood.

"People think we are a court of appeal," he said. "We are not. We are there to settle disputes."

That's the purpose of the law, he said, to settle disputes ("Short of fisticuffs," he said to more laughter.)
Later this morning, Justice Thomas will be speaking with faculty and students at the Levin School of Law at the University of Florida. His speech and Q&A are scheduled to begin at 10:00 o'cock a.m. (EST) and there will be a video webcast sponsored by the University.

Four University of Florida law students have been selected to form a panel to ask questions of Justice Thomas, according to the Gainesville Sun:
[Debra] Amirin said only six seats were made available for media and Thomas wouldn't be taking any questions from reporters — only from the panel of four UF law students.

Leah Edelman, Joshua Mize, Jon Philipson and Dwayne Robinson earned the opportunity to ask Thomas questions after being selected by a faculty committee at the law school.
There will be 796 other people in the audience, the fortunate few who will hear the views of the quietest justice ... and not a snowflake for miles around.

(Hat tip to Booker Rising.)

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