Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 appraises his Yale Law degree at 15 cents. He leaves it buried in his basement.
In the U.S. Supreme Court justice’s new autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son,” Thomas divulges details about the origin of his rift with the law school he once hoped would nurture his aspirations in the legal world. His memoir presents a portrait of an embittered jurist who has long ranked his alma mater high on his list of enemies and has remained pointedly aloof toward the close-knit community of Law School alumni.
The book has sparked debate nationwide and among current and former law school affiliates, many of whom question Thomas’ harsh condemnation of the institution that some say helped pave his road to Washington.
When Law School Dean Harold Koh met with Thomas in his Supreme Court chambers last year, Thomas “made it clear that he had greatly enjoyed his time at Yale Law School, and that he had great affection for his fellow students and for several professors who are still here,” Koh said in an e-mail.
But the memoir gives a gloomier impression.
Thomas writes that he was “tricked” into attending Yale Law School and that it was a “mistake.” He reveals that he considered transferring and says his degree “bore the taint of racial preference.”
At their meeting last year, Koh said he repeated his offer — and that of his predecessors — to have Thomas sit for a portrait.
“As I understand it, he is still considering that invitation,” Koh said in an e-mail.
While Yale regularly attracts his prominent colleagues to its lecterns, Thomas has not spoken at the University since his graduation.
Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke at the Law School Sept. 27 and Justice Antonin Scalia spoke to the Yale Political Union last fall. Justice Stephen Breyer attended the Global Constitutionalism seminar at the Law School in September. Thomas, however, has not made an official campus visit since his Supreme Court appointment in 1991.
Thomas’ climb to the Supreme Court via the Law School began in Georgia, where he was largely raised by his grandfather, whose rigorous work ethic Thomas cited as a guiding influence. He excelled at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and was accepted to law school at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.
He chose Yale, “which was smaller and (so far as I could tell) more liberal,” he writes in his autobiography. “I thought Yale might be a better place for me to grow intellectually.”
But Thomas’ initial satisfaction with the intellectual rigor of his classes and classmates faded as he grew more conscious of a perceived racial otherness.
“On the surface, Yale Law School was everything I’d hoped it would be,” Thomas wrote. “The students were smart, the environment relaxed but intellectually exciting, Yet I still felt out of place. I was among the elite, and I knew that no amount of striving would make me one of them.”
Living with his first wife Kathy Ambush in Yale’s married students’ housing complex, Thomas rarely socialized with other law students.
Donald Elliott LAW ’74, Thomas’ classmate and a current professor at the Law School, said he remembers little of Thomas except that he was smart and shy. Thomas kept to himself and rarely spoke in class, but on the rare occasions that he did, Elliott said he remembers being very impressed.
“In my third year, a low, deep voice from the back of the class said something brilliant,” Elliott said in a phone interview. “I said, ‘Who’s that,’ and someone said, ‘That’s Clarence Thomas.’”
But professor Steven Duke LAW ’61 said Thomas did not stand out as a student.
“Although I had Thomas in a small class, I do not recall him at all,” Duke wrote in an e-mail. “My guess is that he did not attend class very often.”
Duke added that his inability to remember Thomas is “not a recent memory lapse,” since he could not remember Thomas at the time of his nomination to the Supreme Court either.
Thomas’ feelings of isolation intensified as he began to detect subtle racism in his interactions with his white peers and professors. Most of his classmates only seemed interested in talking to Thomas about black issues or sports, he recalls.
“At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: You knew exactly where they were coming from,” he says in the book. “Not so the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.”
Thomas said he considered transferring to another law school, but his wife’s pregnancy with their first child, Jamal, made that financially infeasible.
His belief that his classmates thought he was only at Yale because of affirmative action translated, after graduation, into a belief that his degree “meant one thing for whites and another thing for blacks … it was discounted,” he said in a rare interview with “60 Minutes” on Sept. 30.
In the autobiography, he blames his failure to receive a single job offer by the winter of his third year of law school on his Yale degree’s worthlessness in the eyes of white law-firm recruiters, who he speculated chalked the degree up to affirmative action.
“I was humiliated — and desperate,” he wrote. “The snake had struck.”
His sour confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court did not help his strained relationship with Yale. His former employee, Anita Hill LAW ’80, accused him of sexual harassment, and many Law School professors rallied on her side. In his book, Thomas compares his hearing to Kafka’s “The Trial.”
The seething angst in Thomas’ memoir has drawn criticism from pundits and leading newspaper columnists — not unlike the criticism that the legal establishment often heaps on his conservative legal opinions.
Last Sunday, New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd took aim at Thomas’ belief that his Yale degree was worthless — pointing out that Thomas landed his first job out of law school because the employer was a Yale alumnus — and arguing that white legacies, not just affirmative-action admits, benefited from racial privilege in the Yale Law School admissions office.
Students interviewed said they were struck by the justice’s bitterness toward Yale.
After reading reviews of Thomas’ book, Peter Harrell LAW ’08 said he thinks it is a shame that the Law School does not have a better relationship with Thomas. Judging from his conversations with faculty, Harrell said, he thinks there is a sense that Yale could have more supportive of Thomas during his confirmation hearings.
“But on the other hand, it’s been a long time, and the Law School has made many overtures to him,” he added. “I guess he just can’t get over the grudge.”
Nathan Stevens ’11 called Thomas’s book “juvenile” for revisiting the Anita Hill scandal.
“He wanted to get the last word on something he’s still bitter about,” Stevens said.
“My Grandfather’s Son” currently ranks 10th on Amazon.com’s best-seller list after a week on the market.