It’s not often a Supreme Court justice visits the Beehive State, so it’s unsurprising that a crowd gathered at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel on Friday night to hear from Justice Clarence Thomas.
Former senator Orrin Hatch’s foundation hosted Thomas for the evening’s “fireside discussion.” It’s difficult to think of Hatch and Thomas without recalling the justice’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Then, Anita Hill, who’d worked with Thomas in the federal government, accused Thomas of sexual harassment and testified during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Hatch, who said then that Hill’s “story just does not add up,” defended Thomas.
Thomas recounted his longtime friendship with Hatch that, he said, goes back long before that contentious confirmation hearing.
“What people don’t realize is that he has been fighting for me since 1981,” Thomas said, recounting the several times he had to appear before the Senate during his long pre-SCOTUS tenure in various governmental roles.
“But for him, I would not be here,” Thomas added.
The justice briefly broached the subject of his wife, Ginni, who’s under fire for her longtime activism and involvement with right-wing groups, including one linked to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Ginni Thomas is a leader of the Council for National Policy, a group, according to an investigation from The New York Times, a controversial plan to pressure lawmakers in a handful of states Trump lost to challenge the election results in the hopes of keeping Trump in office.
“She is a good person,” Thomas said of his wife.
Thomas did not address that controversy directly, and instead blamed the media — who he called “the tawdry people” — for inciting division.
“It’s one of the things you have to accept in these public jobs, that the media paints an image of you as an abstract thing. It’s not you. It’s their perception of you and what they want the world to think of you,” Thomas said.
Despite being in a room of mostly Republicans, former President Donald Trump was not mentioned once. However, Thomas did make what could be interpreted as a backhanded reference to the former president when he was lamenting the death of civility.
“I don’t know how we are going to survive as a society if we continue to exalt people who have bad manners, are insulting and negative. This is a civil society, and you need civility to make it work,” Thomas said.
When asked about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the court, forcing arguments before the justices to be done via telephone rather than in person, Thomas surprisingly said that arrangement was positive. It allowed participants to make their points without being interrupted.
“I didn’t like the free-for-all in oral arguments where we interacted and interrupted each other. It’s more productive now. The arguments are contributing to the process of deciding the case as opposed to what was happening, which was almost like a catfight,” Thomas said.
If Friday night’s attendees were hoping to get a preview of some of the big decisions that the court will hand down later this year, say on abortion or gun rights, they were left wanting.
He did warn about the loss of legitimacy and breakdown in our institutions and the dire ramifications it could have for the country.
“You can’t keep taking chips out of your institutions and not expect it to, at some point, be compromised. At some point, it can’t keep withstanding the efforts to undermine,” Thomas said.
Specifically, he was warning about the suggestion by some on the left to expand the Supreme Court beyond the current nine members to counter years of court-packing by Republicans.
“Let’s be honest. This is really about the results they want. They haven’t been able to make the institutions do what they want, to give them what they want. That’s no court at all. That’s no rule of law,” Thomas said.