Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who has become known for his silence from the bench during oral arguments, made national news a few months ago when he spoke, briefly.
So, on Tuesday, when he visited Duquesne University to speak, expansively, a law school student asked the obvious question -- what was Justice Thomas' philosophy about the role of justices in oral arguments?
"Well, first of all, my philosophy about the news is never watching it," Justice Thomas said, to applause and laughter, adding that it was the first he'd heard of the widespread notice given to the moment when, with just a few words, he broke his self-imposed seven-year silence during oral arguments.
Silent on the bench, in the Duquesne Union Ballroom he was forthcoming on the dais.
"I think that we have become a cacophony," he said of the Supreme Court.
In the 1990s, when he was first named to the bench, during oral arguments one member of the court would ask a series of questions and then other members of the court could take a turn asking, and all would listen.
"That is helpful," he said. "And it also allowed people each to have a turn to talk."
The more recent pattern of the Supreme Court is for justices to frequently interrupt the lawyers presenting their arguments.
"Today, it's just, my goodness, everybody's got a question," he said. He'd prefer if the justices allowed the arguments to be made with fewer interruptions, he said.
"I just think there are too many questions," he said. "I think that we have capable advocates and we should let the capable advocates talk."
It was Justice Thomas doing most of the talking Tuesday afternoon, when Duquesne University Law School hosted a conversation with the sitting Supreme Court justice that drew about 1,200 people, including Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Ken Gormley, dean of the law school, and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Thomas M. Hardiman took turns posing questions to Justice Thomas.
He shed no light on the direction of discussions about the two gay marriage cases before the court. As for recently contentious decisions, such as the 5-4 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act, and which found Justice Thomas in the minority, the conservative justice said there were no hard feelings among his colleagues.
"It would be enormously prideful and presumptuous of me to assume that I have the answer," he said. "I have an opinion. I do not have the gospel. I give it my best shot, and that's the way I approach the job."
People do get upset and frustrated after hard decisions, he said, but he described the court as a collegial place, and said he is close with Justice Antonin Scalia in particular.
Justice Thomas, who is the 106th Supreme Court justice and the second African-American to sit on the bench, said he has remained uninterested in politics during his time in Washington, D.C. He met President Barack Obama at his inauguration and during a meeting he had with Supreme Court members, but said that the two have had no in-depth conversations.
Mostly, though, Justice Thomas spoke about his background. A 16-minute video, featuring a script written and narrated by Mr. Gormley, opened the afternoon's discussion.
It covered the 64-year-old's life, beginning with his upbringing in a rural community near Savannah, Ga., his education at Catholic primary schools and seminary, then at Holy Cross College and Yale Law School, and later a legal career that led to his nomination to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush and a heated confirmation process marked by allegations of sexual harassment.
It was a friendly crowd at Duquesne University, and Justice Thomas, wearing a dark suit instead of his black robes, seemed relaxed and was quick to make jokes. Mr. Gormley and Mr. Hardiman drew many of their questions from the topics Justice Thomas covered in his book, "My Grandfather's Son," a 2007 memoir that Justice Thomas said he wrote in part to leave a record of the people who raised and shaped him.
Originally, he said, it was going to be a record kept private within his family. Then, he joked, he made the fatal mistake of signing a book contract, and he had to finish it.
"You talk about an Eighth Amendment violation," he said.
He would not have chosen to become a Supreme Court justice, he said, and he called it a "humbling experience."
"I was looking at those pictures of me when I was nominated. Look what this job has done to me," he said, gesturing toward himself. "It is -- you crawl away from it."
During his remarks, he repeated a message he said he still believed in -- "that you do well in order to do good." The advice he offered Duquesne Law School students was to write down why they went to law school in the first place, to remember their reasons, remain positive and pass the bar exam.
Duquesne presented to Justice Thomas, who attended a primary school called St. Benedict the Moor in Georgia, a performance by the Hill District's St. Benedict the Moor gospel choir. As they sang, Justice Thomas sat in the front row of the ballroom, moving in his seat to the music.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.