Justice Thomas shares insights with essay winners

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, at an awards banquet Tuesday night honoring the winning high school students who wrote essays on what it means to be an American, said that if he had written one, his essay would not have been selected.

“Each of these young people have demonstrated through their essays and the mature depth of their thoughtfulness … what it means to be an American,” Thomas said to a crowd of about 400 people.

Thomas was the keynote speaker at the ceremony for the largest student essay contest in the country, which asked more than 30,000 high school students the question: “What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?”

Only 27 students were chosen to receive cash awards at the annual event, with first place getting $5,000.

“I assure them that I would be one of the 30,000-plus who were left at home,” Thomas said.

Thomas, donning a pinstripe suit and a red tie, professed to be “morose at times” and claimed that after writing a book (which sat propped up in the center of more than 30 dinner tables), issuing opinions and giving countless lectures, he had “run out of things to say.”

Yet the second black justice to serve on the Supreme Court offered words of wisdom and insights into his career to the crowd at a downtown D.C. hotel for nearly one hour, receiving three standing ovations as Supreme Court police watched carefully from the periphery.

Thomas recognized the tumultuous economic state of the country and — invoking John F. Kennedy — implored the audience to work for what they are entitled.

“In my travels, I have been surprised by how many people think that prosperity is a constant, that things are never to be difficult again, that there are never to be great challenges,” he said. “It seems that many have come to think that
each of us is owed prosperity and a certain standard of living.

“It seems to me that more and more people are celebrated for their litany of grievances about this or that,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our bill of obligations and our bill of responsibilities?”

But the night of wine and meats was not entirely sobering. An audience member asked Thomas how his position on the Supreme Court had changed him over the nearly two decades he has served.

“It’s changed my hair,” he joked. “And I have a bit more girth. But on a personal level it has not changed me that much. I am who I am.”