BYU Law’s Founders Day Dinner began with the presentation of two prestigious awards to honor the accomplishments and influence of Monte N. Stewart and Professor David H. Moore. Stewart was the recipient of the 2015 Alumni Achievement Award. Although he graduated 39 years ago, he reports being more or less in close orbit around the Law School since then. He has been a great force for good and is known for placing ideals before personal gain, both in the past and present. “I will strive to make my ongoing professional service worthy both of this award and the extraordinary law school that made me a lawyer,” Stewart said.
Professor Moore received the 2015 Teacher of the Year Award. Each year the Alumni Association honors a professor, elected by recent BYU Law graduates, who transcends the classroom by teaching beyond the black letter law and positively influencing students. “The mission of BYU resonates very deeply with me,” he said. Professor Moore looks forward to continuing to work with students and improving as a teacher as he contributes at the Law School.
Following the presentation of these two awards, the BYU Law community was able to enjoy an address by Justice Clarence Thomas of the United States Supreme Court. The format of the presentation was an interview between Justice Lee, of the Utah Supreme Court, and Justice Thomas. Justice Lee had the privilege of clerking for Justice Thomas.
Robert Stander, a 2011 graduate of BYU Law, who finished his clerkship at the Supreme Court last year, introduced Justice Thomas. Justice Thomas was raised by his grandparents. “Justice Thomas is a family man,” Stander said. “He loves and honors his grandparents, and is known for often saying, ‘as my granddaddy told me…’ and then using that as a teaching moment.” In addition, Stander reported, Justice Thomas is a very religious man. He goes to mass every morning that he is at the Court. “He also loves this country and loves the Constitution. He cares about people.” Stander recalled that when he had conversations with Justice Thomas, it felt like he was the only person in the world. “We’re in for a special night, because it’s our turn to sit down with Justice Thomas, and have a conversation with him,” Stander said.
Justice Thomas’ remarks were widely applicable but also specifically tailored to BYU Law. “Brigham Young University and its campus is what I hoped to see in universities and graduate schools when I was in school…. I’m talking about the way the students conduct themselves,” he said. The students are respectful, and they want to learn and to know. “There’s a decency and a goodness about them.” In addition, Justice Thomas remarked that he has been on a lot of campuses, but that BYU stands out to him. “This is a real jewel,” he said. “It’s not about smart, there’s something else going on. And that’s something else that you have here: character.” He said that character on a campus is learning for a purpose that is much larger than the individual student.
In his conversation with Justice Lee, Justice Thomas drew upon his own experiences growing up in poverty in the segregated South. He attributed his sense of values to the people in his neighborhood: nuns who helped raise him, and his family. He said that they were “the help”—the ones clearing the room, washing the dishes, and serving the meals. “They were people with a lot of values but not much money,” he recalled. Justice Thomas emphasized that these people may not have had nice cars and big houses, but that even though they were on the edge of survival, they understood what it took to prosper in that environment.
After discussing Justice Thomas’ background, Justice Lee turned the discussion to the role of faith and being a follower of Jesus Christ. He asked Justice Thomas about his faith, and how that helped lead him through his life. Justice Thomas recalled that in the 1960s and 1980s he ran away from faith, and then took 25 years crawling back to it. Now at this point in his life, he said, he doesn’t put faith under a bushel. Justice Thomas said that he had a little prayer that he would say on the way to work each day: “Lord give me the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it.” He said that a lot of the big, prestigious jobs in Washington D.C. are very ego-expanding. For him, going to mass orients him during the day as to how to do his job, and reminds him to do it within his role. He stressed the importance of humility and a relationship with God, emphasizing how those things keep him centered around what is important, and are a part of his role as a Supreme Court justice.
Next, Justice Lee asked for a window into the decision-making process at the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas said that he independently reads the briefs at home and then turns to the bench memo and related material. “It sounds like a slow process, but the whole job is that you sit down a lot and you read a lot,” he said. He also relies on his law clerks. Typically they had clerk conferences starting at 6:30 in the morning. “We literally talked about everything. I tried not to cut off discussions, even when people disagreed,” Justice Thomas said. In addition, the Justices themselves have conferences together. At a conference between the Justices, the Chief Justice states his arguments and positions, followed by the other Justices in descending order. Justice Thomas recalled Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wisdom that it is not productive in conference to try to persuade people. Rather, the persuasions take place when the draft opinions circulate.
In regard to his own opinions, Justice Thomas stated that he does not feel that he could join the majority opinion unless he feels it is right. If he does not join in the majority, then he tries to offer the alternative argument. “If you notice the dissents, I’m never yelling at anybody,” he said. “We’re trying to work through the alternative argument.” However, the purpose of setting out the alternative is not to persuade the other justices. Rather, Justice Thomas described the alternative as a seed that may grow into fruition at a later date.
Although the media might expect certain appointees to have particular views, Justice Thomas does not tend to read the papers. “We try to really focus on people who have constructive and substantive arguments,” he said. “When we talk about serious things, we talk about them seriously, not dismissively.” Justice Thomas believes that when talking about the laws and the Constitution, taking them seriously is central to how we govern ourselves in this country. Justice Thomas pointed out that it is not part of his oath to represent any group as an advocate. His role is to impartially interpret and apply the laws. In addition, he is mindful of the experience his law clerks get by working at the Court. “One thing I tell my law clerks when they come to clerk is that they better well leave this job with clean hands, clean hearts, and clear consciences,” said Justice Thomas. Playing political games would not allow them to do that.
Justice Lee also asked Justice Thomas how he interprets the Constitution, and whether it was through original intent, or to make it up along the way. “If you don’t use the words that are there, what do you use?” answered Justice Thomas. The words have meanings, and there are values embodied there that people are trying to protect. There are still different interpretations of it, though, and so sometimes it needs to be read with a higher level of generality. In addition, there are broader terms that don’t appear in the Constitution.
Finally, Justice Lee concluded the discussion with the role of religion and faith in education today, whether in a legal education or higher education generally. “I think it’s pretty obvious that religious liberty is going to be front and center,” said Justice Thomas. As a man of faith, he related someone who abandons faith to someone who abandons a well full of water and then wanders across the desert. “[Faith] is central in my life,” he said. “If you met me years ago, I could be a most unpleasant person…I had some difficulties trying to figure things out.”
Once again, Justice Thomas emphasized that the campus of BYU demonstrates the wonderful feel that comes from faith. “I have met a lot of your students. I have had young people that I’ve met in the building who went to Brigham Young, students just visiting,” he said. “I think that you should be proud of them and proud of your mission.” Years ago, he talked with Rex Lee, and told him that people should not be able to change what BYU is doing. “[Faith] should be all the reasoning you need…to continue doing what you’re doing….Your students are the fruits of your labors. And just look at them—they’re magnificent,” he said. He finished by expressing his gratitude to the School. “I thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your experience at Brigham Young, and to get to know not only you, but the young people you’ve educated and sent to the Court…to help this wonderful country and Constitutional system.”