One of the formative experiences of my life was the year I spent clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas, helping him prepare for cases, draft opinions and think through major legal questions. Along with three other young lawyers, I had the opportunity every day to learn from one of the nation’s most influential legal thinkers.
But the most important lessons Justice Thomas taught us were not about the law. We often would spend hours in his office absorbing his wisdom from his life and listening to his amazing storytelling. I used to regret that I couldn’t share that experience with others who admired and wanted to learn about the justice. That problem has been solved by the talented director Michael Pack, who has managed to produce what is essentially a film autobiography — the story of Justice Thomas’ life told through a series of interviews with the justice himself. His Catholic faith is a theme that resounds through the movie, as it does through his life.
Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words played in theaters in January and February and was available to stream on PBS through the end of May, bringing that personal perspective on the justice to a national audience for the first time. Thomas tells the story of his youth growing up poor in Pinpoint, Georgia, of his grandparents taking him and his brother in after their father abandoned them and their mother couldn’t afford to raise them. It was his grandfather, himself a Catholic convert, to whom the justice owes his own Catholic faith, as well as his commitment to hard work and never giving up.
The movie describes Thomas’ education at schools that were segregated by state law, but run by Irish nuns who taught him that all men were equal in God’s eyes. He still cherishes those nuns for their solidarity with the children they taught — “they were on our side” — as well as their loving insistence that he and his classmates live up to their potential: “You knew they loved you. And when you know that somebody loves you and deeply cares about your interests, somehow they can get you to do hard things.”
It follows Thomas as he pursued a vocation to the priesthood, where he was one of the first black students in his seminary, and traces his disillusionment with the Church after encountering racism even there. He describes the rage that consumed him during his college years as a radical active in the Black Power movement, and how he ultimately prayed to God, “If you take this anger out of my heart, I will never hate again.” That resolution not to give in to anger was tested through Thomas’ brutal confirmation process, which the film portrays in detail, and the often racially-charged derision he has often received because his conservatism doesn’t line up with what many expect from a black man. The movie ends with Thomas reflecting on his life now on the Supreme Court and his commitment to faithfully interpreting the Constitution, regardless of whether his interpretation is received with praise or scorn.
In many ways the face-to-face intimacy of Created Equal mirrors the experience of actually meeting Justice Thomas in his office. Anyone given the chance to meet with him, whether for five minutes or one hour, will feel like the most important person in the world to him at that moment. To him, they are. There is no peeking at cellphones, no rushing to get to another event, no looking over his shoulder to see if there is someone more significant standing behind him that he wants to talk to next. Just two people of equal worth interacting. He is that way with everyone, whether he’s speaking with the chief justice, his law clerks, or one of his many visitors from all walks of life, rich and poor.
The stories told throughout the film are reflected in the items he has chosen to decorate his office. On the walls hang portraits of Frederick Douglass and St. Thomas More, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. All were models of people who had the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, whatever the cost.
He used to tell us clerks, “You have to decide what you’re willing to die for. Until you know that, you’re negotiable.” Justice Thomas is famously nonnegotiable — perhaps the most principled and consistent justice on the court. Having determined that he is willing to die to carry out his oath, before God, to uphold the Constitution, threats to write critical law review articles or concerns about negative headlines can’t move him.
It’s a determination that has been with him his whole life. After working hard to win a seminary Latin competition, he claimed his prize of a statue of St. Jude, the patron of hopeless causes. But when he returned to his room, he found that someone had broken the statue’s head off. Thomas glued it back on. When the same thing recurred, he kept fixing it. He brought the statue with him, and it sits on his desk at the Supreme Court today. The cause of a poor fatherless black child raised by a barely-literate grandfather may have once seemed hopeless, but St. Jude is surely proud of his devotee’s hard-earned accomplishments.
One of the most telling pieces you’ll find in the Justice’s chambers is a framed prayer by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val called the Litany of Humility.
Here are some characteristic lines from that challenging prayer:
“From the desire of being esteemed ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the desire of being honored ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the desire of being praised ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the desire of being consulted ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the fear of being forgotten ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the fear of being ridiculed ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the fear of being wronged ... deliver me, Jesus.
“From the fear of being suspected ... deliver me, Jesus.
“That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease ... Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
“That others may be praised and I unnoticed … Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
“That others may be preferred to me in everything ... Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.”
It may be the only one of the justice’s prayers his many opponents have worked so diligently to answer!
We probably all feel some almost innate revulsion at hearing those words — our pride’s attempt at self-preservation kicking in. Pray to be ridiculed? To be forgotten? It seems particularly out of place in Washington, D.C., a place where self-promotion seemingly fuels the city, from the interns up to the highest elected officials.
How many people in our government — how many judges, how many politicians — have compromised their principles to gain esteem, praise, standing or applause in the eyes of the world, or because they feared being sneered at by our nation’s elites? How many truths have been left unspoken? How many decisions have been made that were perhaps expedient, but not right?
How many people have, like the rich man in the Gospels, gone away sad when they realized they were not willing to pay the cost of acting on principle?
Justice Clarence Thomas, to his unending credit, has stood firm in the face of scorn — not out of pride, but out of humility and fidelity to the Constitution. Spreading the word about this great man may run counter to his own prayers to remain unknown and unapplauded, but his is a story with important lessons for us all about the fruits of humility and fortitude.
Carrie Severino, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is the chief counsel and president of the Judicial Crisis Network.