U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 has criss-crossed the country speaking to alumni and students at universities from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. to the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But in his 14 years on the nation’s high court, Thomas has never once returned to his alma mater — Yale Law School.
The walls of the Law School display portraits of past Supreme Court justices affiliated with Yale — William Howard Taft, William Douglas, Byron White, Abe Fortas and Potter Stewart — but Thomas’ portrait is conspicuously absent. Thomas’ relationship with Yale is rocky to be sure, observers say, due in large part to the public role many law faculty members took in opposing his 1991 Supreme Court nomination.
Thomas’ biographer, Ken Foskett ’83, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who recently published the biography, “Judging Thomas,” said Thomas’ relationship with Yale has always been complicated.
“It is true that he does not have a great relationship with the school … as exemplified by the fact that the school has portraits of lesser figures, but not Thomas,” Foskettt said. “Thomas’ friends say the Law School snubbed him; the Law School says they made several overtures and he rebuffed them.”
Spokespeople for Thomas declined to comment on his relationship with Yale and Thomas did not return calls for this article.
Indeed, Thomas’ resentment towards Yale seems to have has extended into his hiring practices. When choosing law clerks, Thomas gives preference to candidates who did not attend Yale or any other Ivy League school, instead preferring to hire state school alumni, Foskett said.
“He likes to choose folks who have worked harder, who have pulled themselves up from humbler beginnings,” Foskett said. “Certain aspects of Yale’s elitism really turned him off.”
At Yale, Thomas was known for dressing in overalls and a wool cap, which Foskett said was a deliberate fashion statement on his part. Thomas lived a childhood riddled with poverty, born in the Pinpoint community near Savannah, Ga., in 1948 as the second of three children to a mother who worked as a maid and a father who abandoned the family early in Thomas’ life.
Thomas was the first in his family to graduate from high school and entered the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Massachusetts, after the college started a black recruitment program. Likewise, Thomas was the beneficiary of a minority recruitment program at Yale.
“He really felt like he was out of place at Yale,” Foskett said, adding that he was one of only 12 black students in his graduating class at the Law School.
He chose to focus on business-oriented law rather than civil rights and constitutional law, because he wanted to avoid being labeled.
Since graduating from Yale, Thomas has taken a public stance against affirmative action and is one of the Supreme Court’s most vehement critics of the policy.
“You had to prove yourself every day, because the presumption was that you were dumb and didn’t deserve to be there on merit,” Thomas has said of his experiences at Yale.
Upon graduation from the Law School, Thomas could not find a job because of his ethnicity, he said in a C-SPAN interview in 2003.
“When I got out of Yale Law School — the Yale Law School — I could not find a job,” Thomas said.
But he soon found work and his career quickly blossomed. Just 17 years after graduation, President George H. W. Bush ’48 nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of retiring justice Thurgood Marshall. However, his confrimation hearings — where Anita Hill LAW ’80, one of Thomas’ former colleagues, accused him of inappropriate and lewd behavior while the two were working together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — created new tension between Thomas and Yale Law School..
In those hearings,Yale law professor Drew Days testified against Thomas — even before Hill’s allegations surfaced — arguing that Thomas had a limited historical perspective and had a spotty record with protecting women from discrimination, among other claims.
Thomas found Days’ testimony particularly hard to stomach because Days is a black man and represented Thomas’ alma mater, Foskett said. But the criticism among Yale faculty of Thomas’ appointment did not stop with Days, who did not return calls to comment in this article. After Hill came forward, several more professors at the Law School took Hill’s side in opposition to Thomas.
But at the hearings, Guido Calabresi, then-dean of the Law School and now a Federal Appeals Court judge, spoke in favor of Thomas’ appointment to the court. Still, Calabresi told the Washington Post last fall that he thinks Thomas’ animosity towards the Law School stems largely from his feeling snubbed during the confirmation hearings.
“I think he expected the school to rush to support him as a distinguished graduate being nominated to the Supreme Court. But that didn’t happen,” Calabresi told the Post.
There are indications that as the confirmation hearings grow more distant in time, a reconciliation between Thomas and Yale may be on the horizon.
Calabresi said this week that in a recent conversation he had with Thomas, the justice talked about the importance some of his past Yale professors have had on his career and development.
Law professor Anthony Kronman, who stepped down as dean of the Law School in 2003, traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to Thomas several times during his deanship. Once he presented the justice with an embroidered robe with the Yale coat of arms, according to an article in the Washington Post last fall.
Kronman said that his conversations with the justice were private and personal and refused to discuss them publicly. But he was hopeful that the tide may be turning in Thomas’ relationship with Yale.
“I would very much hope that the Law School someday soon would be able to hang a portrait of Justice Thomas,” Kronman said last week. “It would be an addition to the school and an appropriate honor to him.”
Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh has not had an opportunity to meet with Thomas since assuming the deanship, but hopes to reconcile the relationship with Thomas and eventually get the justice’s blessing to hang his portrait in the Law School, spokeswoman Janet Conroy said.
Foskett said he thinks Thomas might be open to reaching an accord with Yale.
“Thomas is a guy who remembers slights and hurts pretty acutely and does not easily forget things,” Foskett said, “but he does forgive.”