In a rare public appearance, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas defended the high court, warned against efforts “destroying our institutions,” and criticized the media for depicting the justices as politicians.
Thomas gave a speech Thursday at the University of Notre Dame, the alma mater of the newest Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
“They think that we make policy,” Thomas responded to a question about misconceptions to the court, criticizing the media. “I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference. So if they think you are antiabortion or something personally, they think that’s the way you always will come out. They think you’re for this or for that. They think you become like a politician.
“That’s a problem. You’re going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions,” Thomas added. “The media and the interest groups further that.”
The high court has been criticized by the mainstream media and abortion rights supporters since its recent 5–4 vote to let a Texas banning-abortion law stand temporarily. The court majority emphasized that their decision didn’t include a conclusion about the constitutionality of the Texas law. Abortion rights supporters deem the decision as evidence that the right to abortion, which was established in 1973 Roe v. Wade, could be threatened.
In a 1992 decision, Thomas was one of four justices who would have overturned Roe v. Wade that extended abortion rights across the country.
Thomas said it’s wrong to determine a judge based on the outcome of the decision.
“If you go back and you look at some of the New York Times articles in the 30s and 40s on Supreme Court cases, the few that I’ve read are excellent. Because they summarize the case, they talk about the arguments, they summarize the whole length, and then there may be a short paragraph on the implications,” Thomas said. “Now put that side by side with what you would get today. I think that’s problematic, and that sort of encourages these preconceptions about the court. That’s all just personal preferences.”
Last week, Barrett also defended the Supreme Court, saying, “this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”
“It’s not my job to decide cases based on the outcome I want,” the newest justice said.
Thomas said that some judges “venture into political, legislative or executive branch lanes, and resolving things that are better left to those branches,” which contributes to the criticism and pressure the judicial system faces.
“I think that’s problematic,” Thomas said.
“When, for example, President [Franklin] Roosevelt threatened to pack the court, there was enough sense of what the court meant and what separation of powers meant to criticize him,” Thomas said. “Today, you see almost no criticism or very little when you have those kinds of conversations. So I think part of it’s the judges’ own doing by venturing in areas we should not have entered into.”
Last week, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer also warned against remaking the Supreme Court, including expanding the institution with justices, suggesting Republicans would do the same.
Serving the high court for 30 years, Thomas admitted that the court is flawed.
“It is flawed. It’s very flawed, like every human institution. … But I will defend it because knowing all the disagreements, it works,” Thomas said. “It may work sort of like a car with three wheels, but it still works.”
“I think we should be careful destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want when we want it,” Thomas said.
Asked how to solve a case conflicting with his Catholic faith, Thomas said that wouldn’t be a problem.
“I have lived up to my oath,” Thomas said. “There are some things that conflict very strongly with my personal opinion, my policy preferences, and those were very, very hard, particularly early on.”
“I mean, you do your job, and you go cry alone,” Thomas said. The audience responded with laughter and applauds.
Next month, the Supreme Court is going to hear a case about Mississippi’s ban on most abortions. That’s the first time the court returns to the courtroom since the pandemic, the Washington Post reported.