U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ’69 LAW ’72 marvels at the undemocratic nature of the U.S. court system.
He is a single individual, but as a trial judge he is able to declare acts unconstitutional, Thompson said.
Speaking to an audience of over 40 people at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea, Judge Thompson discussed the excitement and difficulty of being a federal judge, as well as cases on which he has ruled.
Saybrook Master Mary Miller commented on Thompson’s reputation.
“When we think of changes in Constitutional Law in recent years, we immediately turn our attention to Myron Thompson,” Miller said.
Thompson made headlines recently when he ordered Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state’s courthouse. But since Thompson is still involved with the case, he was unable to speak about the details or his opinion.
“All of you [here] enjoy the privileges afforded by the First Amendment, and while I would fight to protect those, I cannot enjoy them myself. I cannot prejudge cases that may end up in my court,” Thompson said.
Only a year after he began serving on the bench, Thompson made a difficult ruling concerning the use of deadly force by the police. After a friend critiqued his decision as arbitrary, Thompson said he questioned whether he was making or interpreting law.
“After seeing the [Appellate] panel of judges that was set to rule on the case, one of the older judges said to me, ‘I saw the panel; get ready to be reversed.’ At the time I was really upset. People think that because we are selected for life that we don’t have feelings,” Thompson said.
Thompson was vindicated in the end when the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which used Thompson’s language verbatim in its ruling. Thompson said he is humbled by the influence he has.
“It runs against the notion of a democratic system that I could overturn the decisions of elected officials. However, the people who are making appeals to me are ones who would not otherwise have a voice in society,” said Thompson.
Thompson said one of the most difficult cases that has come before him concerned a man who was set to be executed in four days. He explained that he was faced with a moral quandary in that he disagreed with his circuit’s law, which in this case would have ruled against the plaintiff.
“The fundamental question was, do justices operate for a certain outcome or do we comply with the law? I thought about the problem for about two seconds, and then I knew that I had to comply with the law,” Thompson said.
Though Thompson denied the stay of execution, he wrote an opinion expressing his disagreement with the current law. The appellate court upheld his decision, essentially rejecting his opinion. But Thompson and the plaintiff won in the end when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Thompson’s opinion and granted a stay only hours before the man was to be executed.
After serving as a private attorney, he was nominated to the 11th District Court at the age of 33, which made him the youngest member on the federal bench.
Matthew Robinson ’07 said he was interested by Thompson’s experience as a young judge, and saw Thompson’s youth as an advantage.
“Even though he missed out on some opportunities, I think that because he was young he was a more inclined to take chances,” said Robinson.
Thompson was nominated to the District Court by President Carter in 1980, and served as Chief Justice from 1991-1998.
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