Justice Thomas delivers the 2021 Tocqueville Lecture, teaches undergraduate course

Hosted by the newly formed Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the third Tocqueville Lecture. Previous honorees were Professor Robert P. George and the Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, former Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Along with providing students and faculty the opportunity to engage with philosophical, religious, and constitutional questions, the Center is intent on exploring “the fundamental principles and practices of a free society so that citizens and civic leaders are equipped to secure our God-given natural rights, exercise the responsibilities of self-government, and pursue the common good.”

Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, founding director of the Center, described the importance of hosting Thomas in an article announcing his visit: “Whether you agree or disagree with his jurisprudence, he is the Supreme Court’s most independent and original thinker.”

“Studying the founding felt like a return to familiar ground, the ground of my upbringing,” Thomas said during the lecture.

Born in Pin Point, Georgia on June 23, 1948 and raised in Savannah, Thomas was personally affected by poverty and segregation. Sent to live with his grandfather, he found comfort in books and was taught by nuns whom he would come to love. After attending the largely black St. Pius X high school in Savannah, Thomas took his devout Catholic faith and desire to learn to a nearly all-white seminary, where he intended to pursue the priesthood. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a profound impact on his young life and faith, prompting his departure from seminary and enrollment at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he helped launch the school’s Black Student Union and became involved in the black power movement. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree cum laude in English Literature in 1971, he attended Yale Law School.

Upon graduating from Yale in 1974, Thomas worked in the office of then Missouri Attorney General John Danforth. Following a stint at Monsanto Company, he moved to Washington, D.C. to join the staff of now-Senator Danforth. In 1981, Thomas joined the Reagan Administration’s Department of Education and eventually became chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Thomas was confirmed as a judge on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1990 and nominated to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. After a contentious confirmation hearing that included sexual harassment allegations from former EEOC colleague and eventual law professor Anita Hill, Thomas was confirmed 52–48. He is currently the Court’s senior Associate Justice.

Thomas lectured on the Declaration of Independence and its enduring importance in preserving the American experiment. He also reflected on his grandfather, lessons learned from “regular people,” the influence of his nuns, and race relations in America then and now.

Along with delivering the lecture, Thomas co-taught a one-credit undergraduate course with Professor Muñoz called “The American Dream and the American Constitution: The Life and Jurisprudence of Justice Clarence Thomas.” Students in the class experienced his original thinking firsthand.

The course assigned Thomas’s autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, and relevant Supreme Court cases on the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The class also attended a screening of the 2020 documentary film about Thomas’ life, “Created Equal,” and spoke with its filmmakers, Michael and Gina Pack.

During the lecture’s Q&A portion, a question was posed about the effect of his faith on his jurisprudence: “Have there been times in your career when the legal questions you must resolve conflict with your Catholic faith? If so, how do you proceed?”

Thomas replied, “I have lived up to my oath … but there have been some [cases] that broke my heart.” He continued: “When I first became a judge in 1990, my colleague Judge [Larry] Silberman … gave me a little bit of advice, unsolicited advice: ‘Before you sit on a case, ask yourself this question: What is my role in this case as a judge?’ Not as a citizen, not as a Catholic.”

Thomas echoed this sentiment during class: His faith does not inform his judicial work. He often discussed Article Three of the Constitution, the section describing the judiciary. He emphasized that judges must act like referees during sporting events, not fans with a vested interest in a certain outcome. As an example, Thomas referenced the upcoming Notre Dame-Purdue football game. He asked a student in class, “As a fan, how would you react if there was a holding call against Purdue? The student responded, “I would think it was the right call.” Thomas continued, “Now, as a fan, how would you react if the same penalty was against Notre Dame?” “I would protest the call,” the student said. Thomas concluded, “This is what judges cannot do; they must remain neutral.”

In class, Thomas also touched on his relationship with other Justices. He described Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a “great friend,” praised Antonin Scalia (whom he affectionately referred to as “Nino”), called Stephen Breyer a “funny man” and a “wonderful friend,” and David Souter an “elegant man.” Thomas concluded his description of past and present colleagues by highlighting the importance of “disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

Thomas’ lecture is available for viewing on the Center’s website.

Brian Joseph is a sophomore Program of Liberal Studies and Economics double major. When not reading, writing, or listening to music, he can be found asking all who are willing to listen: “Are you in good hands?” and imitating his hero, the Allstate spokesman Dennis Haysbert. Questions, comments, and song recommendations can be sent to bjoseph@nd.edu. 

Photo credit: Justice Thomas sits for his official Supreme Court photograph, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States