Clarence Thomas

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas speaks during a presentation on Monday, Sept. 10, 2007, at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Despite taking its name from former justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Marshall, this was the first time Marshall University has played host to one.

Marshall University welcomed a member of the nation’s highest court to campus on Monday.

Clarence Thomas, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, attended the monthly meeting of Huntington’s newly established American Association of Retired Persons.

The chapter’s just a year old and already boast 200 members, said president Dolly Rozzi, who worked with Thomas for eight years in the 1980s when the judge was chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Rozzi, who already worked for the EEOC in Washington when she heard Thomas was coming to work there, said she was nervous about being able to get along with the judge.

“Well, we did get along. And we’re still getting along,” she told the audience that gathered at Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. “He’s not afraid to take chances. And it was so nice to work with someone who was excited about his job.”

Thomas was welcomed to Huntington by Commissioner Scott Bias; Michael Sellards, president of St. Mary’s Medical Center, which sponsors the chapter of the AARP; and West Virginia Supreme Court Judge Brent Benjamin.

“It’s a particular pleasure to welcome Justice Thomas to Marshall University, which is named for the fourth and longest-serving chief justice of the United States, John Marshall — a hero who epitomized what it was to be a great jurist,” Benjamin said.

Thomas was also welcomed by Marshall University President Stephen Kopp.

“Having Justice Thomas here has awakened the tradition started by John Marshall — definer of the Constitution,” Kopp said. “(Thomas is) the first U.S. justice to walk the hallowed halls of this university.”

Thomas — who went through one of he most highly publicized confirmations in history because of allegations of sexual harassment by subordinate worker Anita Hill — was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall in 1991. He is the second African- American to serve on the nation’s highest court, after Justice Marshall.

Rozzi scheduled Thomas for the AARP meeting to lecture on the workings of the court.

The justice — who got a laugh from his audience when he admitted that he is not a member of AARP — said what actually happens in court and what is said about what happens in court are not always the same thing.

“I’ve also found that people who hold strong opinions on our cases rarely actually read an opinion that we have written,” Thomas said. “See what we do in court before you think it’s an easy job.”

He said more than 9,000 requests are made to the Supreme Court each year, but only about 80 cases actually make it to the high court.

“The real hard part of our work takes place behind closed doors,” he said. “We are like referees in a game: Referees are neutral and they use rules that are already set out for them. We are referees who wear black robes and use the Constitution as our rule book.”

Thomas said he’s never heard an unkind word spoken between justices and that he prefers the judiciary over the EEOC. “I like doing the job without getting involved with commentary from the bleachers. It’s amazing how civil it is,” he said.

After an audience member asked what he would say was the most difficult case he has ruled on, Thomas said the key to a Supreme Court judge’s consistency and partiality is to ask: “What is my role in this case as a judge?”

“What do you do if you are standing 20 feet up on a bridge and someone is drowning down below and you have a rope that’s only 10 feet long?” he asked. “You have to ask, ‘What is my role in this case as a judge.’ If you start judging just because you feel your heart going a certain way, you are going to break the rules of judging and that’s not OK.”

The 59-year-old fielded — and respectfully “dodged” — other questions from the audience ranging from, “How do you feel about the possibility that innocent people are on death row?” to “What branch of government do you think the position of vice president falls under?”

“When I started this job, my hair was black and I had more of it. That’s why I say these people who think this is an easy job are obviously the ones who have never done it,” Thomas said. “My hope is that when my tenure is over, people will look at my body of work and say, ‘Maybe I don’t agree, but I see the point he is trying to make.’”

SARAH LYNCH can be reached at (606) 326-2650 or slynch@dailyindependent.com.

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