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August 04, 2015

Supreme Court Justice Shares Life Lessons at PBA

February 11, 2014

A product of parochial schools in Georgia, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas considers his eighth-grade teacher among his most influential mentors.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks during a special chapel event in the DeSantis Family Chapel at Palm Beach Atlantic University on Tuesday. PBA is a private, Christ-centered college in West Palm Beach, Fla., USA.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks during a special chapel event in the DeSantis Family Chapel at Palm Beach Atlantic University on Tuesday.

During a special chapel event at Palm Beach Atlantic University on Tuesday, Justice Thomas reflected on his teacher, a Franciscan nun whom he had an opportunity to thank in person during his adult life.

He used the Latin term sine qua non in asking students to think about those individuals without whom “you wouldn’t be here,” he said.

“Who is that sine qua non” in your life, he asked. “Are there lots of people, somebody who gave you a scholarship, somebody who gave you advice, somebody who kept you on the right track, somebody who saved you from yourself? Think about it, and take an opportunity go back and just thank them. If they’re gone, just say a prayer thanking them,” he said.

He also had words of advice for students who haven’t been home to visit their family members in a long time. “Don’t do what I did and not go home,” he said. “I don’t care what the issues are. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I’d gone home more often.”

In addition to speaking in chapel, Justice Thomas spoke to a gathering of faculty and to a small group of students as part of PBA’s President’s Lyceum. The Lyceum is a speaker series in which visitors who have distinguished themselves in various professions come to present their insights and experiences in a discussion with PBA students.

His trip was arranged by 1997 PBA graduate Emin Toro, who clerked for Justice Thomas. Toro is a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling LLP. Toro was in attendance for the days’ events along with his wife, Katie Nordine, a 1996 PBA graduate and daughter of Ed Nordine, assistant dean of PBA’s Warren Library.

Justice Thomas came to PBA following a week-long stint teaching at the law school at the University of Notre Dame. Being around students is “the part I really like,” he said.

Palm Beach Atlantic University President William M. B. Fleming Jr. leads a question and answer session with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Tuesday (2/11/14) in the Lassiter Rotunda of PBA's Warren Library. PBA/PBAU is a private, Christ-centered college in West  Palm Beach, Fla.
PBA President William M.B. Fleming Jr. leads a question and answer session with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Tuesday in the Lassiter Rotunda of PBA's Warren Library.

The chapel event featured a discussion between PBA President William M. B. Fleming, Jr., and Justice Thomas about his book “My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir.” Asked about his faith journey, Justice Thomas spoke about growing up under his grandparents’ care, his early years as an altar boy, his “drift toward left-wing ideologies” in the late 1960s and his subsequent return to the church.

“The return journey is certainly one that I’m glad I made, and the departure journey gives more fullness and completeness to the return,” he said. “I know where I came from and I love the direction that I’m going. I like (having) that in my rear-view mirror and not in front of me.”

A devout Catholic, he said that he starts each day in prayer.

“I quite frankly don’t know how you do these hard jobs without some faith,” he said, adding that the oath of office for many influential positions concludes with the words “so help me God.”

He said that he tries to put himself “in the right place to do hard things.”

“I believe that just as they say there are not many atheists in foxholes during war, I think there are not many atheists in places where you have to do hard things every day,” he said.

In an earlier discussion with students, Justice Thomas was asked what he sees as the biggest threat to the U.S. republic. Too often, people are disinterested in knowing about their government, he said.

Also, he said, there is less emphasis today on the responsibilities and sacrifices involved with political freedom. “When last did you hear a national or political leader tell you what was required of you? They tell you what you should get, what you are entitled to, but what’s required of you?

"What have we done to deserve to live like this?” he asked. “We need to focus on that. What have we put into the kitty of liberty?”

In a later session with faculty members and students, Justice Thomas took questions about such topics as affirmative action and the ongoing debate about the legalization of medical marijuana.

A longtime opponent of affirmative action, Justice Thomas said that his religious upbringing has much to do with his views. “We were all equal in God’s eyes. We are all equal under the Constitution,” he said. “That was drilled into us by my grandparents and by the nuns.”

Though most undergraduates are too young to remember Justice Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991, they said they appreciated hearing from someone of his caliber.

Jordyn Marlin, a sophomore communication major who is in the Supper Honors Program, said she agreed with his thoughts on the responsibilities of liberty, particularly how “people sometimes complain without fully understanding the responsibilities on their part and becoming educated in how the system works,” she said.

Justin Johansen, a sophomore who is majoring in management in the Rinker School of Business, said he was honored to be among several students who were able to meet and shake hands with Justice Thomas.

“PBA teaches us about serving our country and serving God,” he said, “and through the speaker today we were able to see how a Supreme Court member is doing that.”


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