The Kind Soul of Clarence Thomas

POLITICS & POLICY
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., October 21, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
He’s a gifted originalist, of course. But we shouldn’t forget the depth of his kindness.

I sat motionless in front of my laptop, trying desperately to clear my foggy head when my phone rang. It was Justice Thomas, who this weekend marks 30 years on the Supreme Court. Stiffening my upper lip and rising from my seat, I manufactured my best cheery voice and answered, “Good morning, Justice!” I did not want to betray that, despite having the file open for hours, I had made no headway on the opinion we were currently drafting. “Laura,” his somber, concerned voice intoned, “How are you? How is your grandmother?”

I crumpled. It was April 2020, and I was locked in my apartment alone as the first weeks of the pandemic raged on. Days earlier, I had learned that my grandmother would soon pass away, and like so many others, I felt crushed by the unfairness of not being able to see her, to say goodbye, to hug my family. “Oh, Justice,” I said, starting to cry, “she just died.”

I hung up the phone two and a half hours later, all thoughts of the draft forgotten. If he was concerned about the status of my work, he didn’t mention it. In that moment, what mattered most to him was me, his “kid,” his family. And “family always comes first,” he reminded me, so “you take all the time you need.”

In the ensuing weeks, the calls kept coming, sometimes multiple times a day. “You’re my only clerk who’s living alone in this crazy new world,” he’d say. “I worry about you.” More than that, he often anticipated topics that I didn’t even realize were weighing heavily on me until he invited me to speak about them. We talked, for instance, about the unique difficulties the lockdowns imposed on me as a blind person, and about my feelings of anxiety as overnight my independence vanished into a world of signs and standing markers and unstaffed stores. Through all my ramblings, the justice was there, patiently giving me advice, frequently witty, and always immensely generous with his time.

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I learned many invaluable things from Justice Thomas during my clerkship year. He taught me how to analyze legal questions more deeply and with more attention to detail than I thought possible. I refined and refined again my writing skills, emerging with the ability to express my ideas far more succinctly and effectively than the day before I entered his chambers. Those skills will stay with me for the rest of my life, both in and outside the law. But, as exemplified by the way he looked out for me during the pandemic, my year with the justice taught me something far more immeasurable: how to love well.

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by distractions — a slew of notifications and emails and phone calls to return. Too much to do and not enough time. The legal profession, I think, is uniquely susceptible to the pressure that a person’s value is directly tied to how little spare time he has to dedicate to any one activity. And, as might be expected, friends and family often get the short end of that stick. But even though Justice Thomas possesses what society considers to be one of the most important jobs in the United States, he has not bought into this lie. Justice Thomas easily — indeed, justifiably — could tell those seeking his help that he simply did not have time or energy to spare. But day in and day out, I witnessed him instead giving unceasingly of himself to others. Whether he was donating an entire afternoon to answering questions from high-school and college students, helping to connect budding law students with others who shared their interests, or providing countless hours of career, family, and life advice to his nearly 200 clerks, the justice’s inexhaustible font of selfless energy was on full display each and every day of my clerkship. Near the end of my term, I finally asked him how he managed to do it all. The answer, he said, was simple: “The work will always be here, but the chance to be kind might not. You’ll never regret taking the time to be kind.”

It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been a year since I last walked through the doors of the Supreme Court and into Justice Thomas’s chambers. I have now reentered the traditional legal world, replete with billable-hour requirements and late-night emergencies and last-minute rescheduled dinners with friends. As the first blind woman to clerk at the Court, I have also had the joy of being contacted by numerous organizations and parents seeking advice or assistance on a variety of topics related to achieving success as a blind person. Whenever I hear the beginnings of that siren song, with its alluring suggestion that I just don’t have enough time, the justice’s voice once again returns to my mind: “You will never regret taking the time to be kind.” As with so many other things, he’s been right every single time.

Over the past 30 years, Justice Thomas has proven to be one of the most gifted legal minds in modern history, as well as a preeminent originalist. Each year, he releases four clerks out into the world, many of whom go on to hold influential positions where they put into practice the intellectual and legal skills honed by their time with the justice. But those same four clerks, if they have listened well, also emerge more selfless, loving, and generous, ready to go out into the world and make it a fundamentally more equal and just place. This is the justice’s legacy, and it is my greatest honor to be part of it.

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