The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Justice Clarence Thomas: 2021 Tocqueville Lecture, Transcribed

"I don't do a lot of hand wringing in my opinions and tell people 'Oh, I'm really sad.' That's not the role of a judge. I mean, you do your job and you go cry alone."


On Thursday, Justice Thomas delivered the 2021 Tocqueville Lecture at Notre Dame University. I've used Otter to transcribed the lecture here.

There are many gems during the lecture, and the Q&A session. Here I'll highlight one question about how he handles cases in which his legal views and policy views diverge. Thomas approaches the question with candor and grace.

Question: Has there been times in your career when the legal questions you must resolve conflict with your Catholic faith? If so, how do you proceed?

Justice Thomas: No, not really. I think if it did, if I think if it gets something conflict, that great. Where I fundamentally think it's wrong, I would just go and do something else. The I'm at a point, you know, I said that early on, and I still believe that, but I have lived up to my oath. There are some things that conflict very strongly with my personal opinion, my policy preferences. And those were very, very hard, particularly early on. But you don't I don't do a lot of hand wringing in my opinions and tell people 'Oh, I'm really sad.' That's not the role of a judge. I mean, you do your job and you go cry alone. But there have been some words. But there have been some that broke my heart. And that just were really, really high. And I've been there sometimes, particularly early, you sit with the more seasoned members of the court, and you explain to them what's wrong. And when I first became a judge in 1990. My colleague, Judge Silberman, Larry Silberman, sat down with me. And one of the things that's really interesting is no judge ever tells you how to do your job. The only people who tells you tell you how to do your job, or people who've never been judges. But anyway, he said to me, he said, I'm just going to give you 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 us as a as a as a Catholic or any What is my role, in this case, as a judge? That is a hard one. Because if you stay in that lane, there are some things that you as a citizen, or you as a personal preference would want to come out a different way. And that's what I've tried to do the other thing, and then I'll be quiet about it. But I have four law clerks, four wonderful law clerks. And they're very, very bright like your students. And they watch you I tell them to watch me. And that's something my grandfather always told us watch me and do as I do not, as I say. So he didn't really mean that do as I don't do as I say, part I can tell you that. But the I tell my clerks that you watch me for a full year, and my job is that you leave here with a clean with clean hands, clean hearts and clear conscience. We will never do anything that's improper. And I encouraged them to tell me every clerk works on every case. So if you see something, your job is to let me know. And we sit and we talk about it. But in 30 years or 30 terms, we I don't think a single Clerk will ever tell you we have that anything other than our job.

Well said.