Justice Thomas Guest Lectures at GW Law

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Taught the March 11 Contracts Class of One of His Former Law Clerks, Dean Gregory Maggs


March 11, 2011Interim Dean Gregory Maggs's Contracts II students got a surprise Friday morning when their guest lecturer turned out to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While many of Justice Thomas's remarks included contracts and commerce topics, he also spoke to the students on a wide array of themes including thoughts on his time in law school.

"I was panicked my first year," Justice Thomas told the class of first-year law students about his own law school experience at Yale Law School.  "When I made it through that first year, I knew I had a chance, and a light went on during my second year and I knew I had my bearings."

After the lecture portion, the Justice spent the rest of the time taking questions from students.  Questions ranged from wanting to know his opinion on recent Supreme Court decisions to tips on oral advocacy as many students will be participating in the first-year moot court competition in a few weeks.

"Be flexible, not rigid," Justice Thomas told the students.  "Know the facts, material, and law of the case--there is no excuse not to.  "Be conversational, know the points you want to emphasize--and above all else--be honest."

One student asked if it was frustrating to sometimes be the lone dissenter in cases.

"No," he said.  "Comfort is knowing you live up to the oath you took" to return the decision you believe is the right one.

Justice Thomas gave the students an inside look into how he comes to a decision in a case and the process he employs in his chambers.

"I sit down with my clerks and I give my personal reaction to the case, and I say 'Let's not include this in the opinion,' because you want to wall-off your personal views," he said.  Justice Thomas said he always wants his law clerks' opinions on everything, that this roundtable discussion is the time to give ideas and ask questions.  "If you can't give me your opinion, you are of no help to me."

It has now been almost two decades since Justice Thomas has presided on the High Court and the students got a glimpse into his time and experiences during these past 20 years.

Justice Thomas explained how he has worked in all three branches of the federal government and that he found the Supreme Court to be "the most civil branch--it lives up to what the Founders wanted."

He said of his colleagues that they are engaged and civil and he's never once experienced a raised voice in their discussions, even though it is a safe and candid environment to discuss ideas.

"Every Supreme Court member I've met without exception has been incredibly capable and likeable," Justice Thomas said.  "You don't have to agree with someone to admire them."

Justice Thomas ended his lecture by telling the students he wished he had met more and different kinds of people during law school and recommended to this 1L class to make efforts to meet new people.

"People are very complicated and very interesting if you give them a try," he said. 

"Also, make sure to learn as much as you can."

Afterwards, Justice Thomas took more than 15 minutes to meet with students before going to a lunch at the Law School with former law clerks Dean Maggs and Professorial Lecturer in Law Jennifer Mascott (J.D. '06), student body leaders, and faculty members Associate Dean Scott Pagel, Associate Dean Lisa Schenck, Professor Renée Lettow Lerner, Professor Robert Cottrol, and Professor John Duffy.

"We are all very grateful to Justice Thomas," said Dean Maggs.  "He was tremendously generous in coming to visit us.  I was very impressed with the sophistication of the class's questions, and found Justice Thomas's answers to be extremely candid and interesting."

Justice Thomas has strong ties to the GW Law community: three of Justice Thomas's former clerks are teaching at GW Law this semester: in addition to Dean Maggs's Contracts II class, Professor Mascott is teaching Administrative Law and Professorial Lecturer in Law Kate Todd is teaching Federal Courts.  Alumna Chantel Febus (J.D. '02) also clerked for Justice Thomas.


GW Law Federalist Society President Meredith Madden Ralls (J.D. '12), incoming SBA President Nicholas Nikic (J.D. '13), Provost Steve Lerman, Justice Clarence Thomas, President Steven Knapp, outgoing SBA President Theresa Bowman (J.D. '12), Profesor Jennifer Mascott (J.D. '06, former law clerk to Justice Thomas).

- by Claire Duggan