Deciding that someone you’ve never met is your hero is risky. That is no less true when it comes to law than in other fields of endeavor. To respect the way that someone does their job, to admire their mastery of the craft, is one thing. But to call that person your hero is different. It speaks to their character as much—if not more so—as to their labor or their skill.
Early in law school, I claimed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as my hero.
For me, it was inescapable. The way he approached judging was the only one that made sense to me. Time and again, Justice Thomas stripped the case to its barest elements and asked the important questions: what power is the Court exercising? Where does that power come from? What is the applicable neutral principle? Has precedent strayed from that principle or adhered to it?
For Justice Thomas, I believed, judging was not about slogans, labels, or legal theories. It was about the search for truth. That truth might be discovered in the close study of a complex statute, a voluminous trial record, an 19th-century dissent, founding-era history, or a neglected common-law rule. But it was out there if you were willing to look.
As a student, you did not have to agree with the result Justice Thomas reached to respect his process. And you did not have to call yourself an originalist to admire his neutrality. You could trust that Justice Thomas was always trying to get it right. He was steadfast.
A few years later, Justice Thomas hired me to be his law clerk. To meet someone you idolize is intimidating enough. To be asked to serve him is paralyzing. I naturally questioned whether I was up to the task. But I also wondered, if only for a moment, whether the man will measure up to his opinions.
Justice Thomas, I quickly learned, lives his principles.
I also learned, though, that being principled comes at a price. Deciding cases based on policy preferences is easy. Invoking one’s own sense of morality at the expense of law is satisfying. A commitment to getting it right regardless of consequences, in contrast, requires self-discipline and humility. Digging and digging until you unearth the legal principle that decides the case can be grueling. But that is what Justice Thomas consistently did. It was inspiring to witness. Only those who measure a decision’s correctness by its outcome instead of the rigor of the legal reasoning could possibly see it differently.
Yet working for Justice Thomas exposed me to something more profound: grace. It is difficult to describe what it is like to work for someone so decent. He is always there when any of his current or former clerks find themselves in a moment of personal or professional crisis.
But his concern extends far beyond the clerk family. The number of people Justice Thomas has helped—in ways big and small—are too numerous to count. Court staff, law clerks for other Justices, friends old and new, and people from all walks of life who write to him or meet him as he travels throughout the country, have all been the recipients of his wisdom, compassion, and friendship. It is difficult to imagine that anyone has used their station in life to do more good than Justice Thomas. Not with grand gestures, but by offering gentle encouragement, a kind word, or a helping hand when it was needed most.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of Justice Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, many will be reflecting on his tenure. He has shown himself to be the most principled Justice in our history. He is the model of what a judge should be: impartial, careful, candid, and direct.
But for those lucky enough to work for him, Justice Thomas’s legacy will be the example he has set for us. He has stood alone when going along with the crowd would have made him popular. He has made the tough call when heading for the tall grass might have been appealing. And he has shown the world far more charity than it has ever shown him. Clarence Thomas is a great jurist. But he is an even better man.