Clarence Thomas calls Supreme Court a 'marble palace'

Published: Sunday, July 18 2010 12:31 a.m. MDT

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the keynote address at the Utah State Bar's summer convention Saturday morning.

In his remarks, Thomas painted a portrait of duty and isolation in describing what life is like for the nine justices of the nation's high court.

"I'm convinced," he said, "that part of (this job) is that when you consider the consequences of the decisions that we make, it does weigh on you and it does show you that there's something so important that you've got to get it right. It does have an effect on you.

"(The Supreme Court) truly is a marble palace (because) we're isolated. We're isolated from the politics, we're isolated from the city and in a lot of ways we're isolated from the country. These trips allow me to come out and see the people who really matter in our government, and that is you all."

Throughout an 18-minute address and during an additional half hour fielding audience questions, Thomas repeatedly endeared himself to the packed banquet hall with sharp self-deprecating humor. He elicited widespread laughs at least a dozen times, the loudest erupting when he drew parallels between his place on the high court and the circumstances of an '80s-era "Saturday Night Live" routine in order to poke fun at himself for being the only African-American justice on the Supreme Court.

"Things might happen when (I'm not at the court)," he said. "You all may not remember that Eddie Murphy skit where he's on the bus and he's the only black guy on the bus and nobody talks — it's sort of like being on an elevator. As soon as Eddie Murphy leaves the bus, all the whites who are left on the bus throw off their outer garments and they're in party outfits. So things may be going on at the court (when I'm not there) — they may just be waiting and saying, 'Oh, the black guy's gone!' "

But Thomas wasn't all smiles Saturday. On several occasions and without prompting, he referenced the Supreme Court's decision in the Bush v. Gore case that finalized the 2000 presidential election. Almost a decade after the fact, he still feels the sting of media insinuations that that judicial decision was influenced by personal politics.

"I think (the politics) about Bush v. Gore is more (a creation) of what the media said about Bush v. Gore, which I think is unfortunate," he said. "I think we have a tendency in this country to characterize institutions in ways that fit in a particular mode and fit a preconceived notion. … The interesting thing is, if you ask the members of the court, they may disagree, they may be upset, they may be passionate, but they would not say it's politics."

Thomas, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, will be in Salt Lake City on Monday to swear in his former law clerk, Thomas R. Lee, to the Utah Supreme Court. Lee, who most recently worked as a BYU law professor, clerked for Thomas during 1994-95.

Later Saturday, Thomas participated in a panel discussion titled "Challenges to the Judiciary in the Coming Decade." Joining him on the panel were U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham and 3rd District Court Judge Lee Dever.

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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