Legal Docket: Insights from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Monday, June 4th, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Well, we expect more rulings to be handed down this morning by the Supreme Court. Last week, three rulings.

And one came in a case we covered a week ago.

It involves a trucking company CEO named Sergio Lagos. He pleaded guilty to defrauding his lender and then filed for bankruptcy. His lender spent millions on lawyers and accountants to defend the lender’s interests in the bankruptcy proceeding.

But the question was whether Lagos had to reimburse the lender for such investigations under the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act. It requires reimbursement for costs incurred during government investigations in criminal cases.

A unanimous court said that law does not apply to parallel litigation in civil courts such as for bankruptcy. The case is reversed, but the issue isn’t over. The high court sent it back to lower court for further proceedings.

EICHER: The second ruling reins in police powers and expands privacy protections for homeowners. The Supreme Court said police officers don’t automatically get to search vehicles in the area immediately around a home. They first have to obtain a warrant, because homeowners have legitimate privacy expectations.

In this case, two Virginia officers were on the lookout for a motorcyclist clocked going more than 140 miles per hour. They found the unusual looking motorcycle under a tarp in a driveway and searched it.

Eight justices ruled this is an unconstitutional infringement of the Fourth Amendment.

They did leave open whether some other legal theory might support the police. The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

REICHARD: Finally, the court decided a case it heard was not suitable for its intervention. Here, a police officer honestly answered a job-application question for a position he sought in another town, revealing he’d kept a knife from an investigation conducted on his current job. A criminal investigation of the officer ensued because of that, although eventually it was dismissed.

But the officer argued his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated.

During argument, several justices noted oddities of the case that hinted that something just wasn’t right,  so the “Dismissed as improvidently granted” order, the DIG, was no surprise. The case can proceed in lower court.

EICHER: Well, more decisions are coming over the next month, but we are done with Supreme Court arguments until October.

Mary will analyze the key ones in greater depth as they come down, but we will go ahead and start our off-season series exploring legal trends and cases she thinks are possibly ripe for future Supreme Court action.

Today, a special Legal Docket featuring the voice of a Supreme Court justice you did not hear this year, at all: that of Justice Clarence Thomas.

REICHARD: It’s his practice not to ask questions during oral arguments. He’s said it’s because, to his way of thinking, that one hour should be devoted to lawyers’ convincing him one way or the other on a given dispute—and not to justices taking up time asking questions.

Justice Thomas delivered the commencement address at Christendom College. It’s a Catholic liberal arts school in Virginia. The date was May 14th.

Justice Thomas is himself Catholic, so you’ll hear references to that. You’ll also hear him refer to two Scalias: one, his late colleague on the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia, and also Paul Scalia, a priest, who is the late justice’s son. Here’s an extended excerpt of Justice Thomas’s address

CLARENCE THOMAS: Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you. Oh, that makes you want to quit while you are ahead. [LAUGHTER] In 1971, when I was where you are, I was approaching my 23rd birthday. I was in the process of accumulating—while I sat as you sit—many, many regrets. Such as, failing to return home to visit my grandparents often enough. Too often being influenced by my contemporaries, who knew no more about life than I did! And the biggest: remaining outside the church from which I had fallen away. You know, at graduation ceremonies many people will go out and tell you to conquer the world and climb mountains and do great things. The truth is we are fortunate if we can conquer ourselves.

There is a story of a young man who like me had bad judgment. At the request of his mother, he went to visit a wise, older man who lived nearby. The older man was known to have outstandingly good judgment. The young man told him that he too wanted to have good judgment one day and sought a wise man’s advice. The wise man said, “Son, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from having had bad judgment.”

Even as I’ve had bad judgment, the bad judgment of youth, something kept me from going too far and helped me to learn from those experiences. I spent 25 years of my life in the wilderness, away from the church, and yet the clarion call of Sunday church bells never went away. Something restrained me.

In those days of the 1960s and 70s, the inner restraint was called “a hangup” or an inhibition. In fact, it was a conscience. A Catholic conscience that had been formed in a world much like this wonderful wonderful college. It is this faith that has been the guiding beacon during some difficult and seeming hopeless times. Even when I had turned my heart against it and turned back on it. I have no doubt that this faith will do the same for each of you if you let it. Perhaps even if you don’t. It is not a tether, but rather is a guide. The way, the truth, and the life.

That reminds me of my encounters with my grandfather, as the bitter young man. Seemingly I was certain about everything. You know, it’s funny now just how certain we think we are about so much when we have two decades of life under our belts.

At the end of our confrontations—that had to be exasperating to my wonderful grandfather—he would often simply say before walking away, “You just live long enough, you’ll see.”

A few months ago my wife and I were talking with one of our favorite priests, Father Scalia. One of the things that has mystified me during my tenure on the court, which now approaches 30 years, was the fact that his father, Justice Scalia, and I were from very very different backgrounds, but we agreed on so much and trusted each other implicitly.

We saw so much the same way. Before I arrived at the court in 1991, I had never met him. So we had no prior relationship. He was from New Jersey and New York area and I from south Georgia. He was from a household of educated parents and mine was almost functionally illiterate. We did not share the same race. I told Father Scalia about this, and he provided what should have been obvious all along. Your Catholic formation was your bond, he said. There it was. Our mutual formation of moral character.

It seems that in this increasingly secular world, man sees himself as the master of the universe. There seems to be this notion that if we put our resources and our minds to it, we can do just about anything and solve just about any problem.

Man is powerful enough to destroy the earth and change the climate. Who needs God? Who cares about the church?

Some time ago, one of our parish priests gave the most interesting homily that made the point better than I could hope to. A young student in France boarded a train. He took a seat across from an elderly gentleman who appeared to be dozing. When the train lurched, a rosary fell from the gentleman’s hand. The young man reached down and handed it back to the gentleman. He couldn’t resist asking the gentleman if he still believed in such things as praying the rosary. The gentleman admitted that indeed he still believed. Surprised, the young student told the gentleman that his professors at the university did not believe in such superstition. He then went on to enlighten the elderly gentleman of the more modern and sophisticated view of the world.

As the older gentleman prepared to leave the train at this stop, the young man offered to send him materials to further enlighten him. The older man kindly accepted the offer and gave the young man his business card as he departed. As the train pulled away, the young man read the card aloud to himself. “Louis Pasteur, Director of the Institute of Scientific Institute, Paris.”

Perhaps Louis Pasteur through his path-breaking work and his life experience, he knew something the young man had yet to learn. It seems that often the more we know and the more we learn, the more we doubt how much we really know or how well we know what we think we know. We realize what our human limitations are.

To know, love, and serve God requires that we obey his commandments and the laws of the church. This world will tug at you and attempt to divert you. Somehow you must stay the course. God will provide a way, give you the strength and grace to endure and overcome your failures. I assure you that there are things today that you think are important, that are critical, that are indispensable. Many of these same things you will one day think are trivial and disposable.

In the early 1990s, shortly after I arrived at the court, I frequently drove past a small cinder block church in northern Virginia. It had a simple sign, inexpensive sign out front with a quote from second Corinthians.  For we walk by faith not by sight. Simple, yet profound. Yes, Google maps may get you from one place to another, but only God will show you the way to that peace which passes understanding.

May God continue to bless and guide each of you throughout your lives and I pray that you know love and serve Him in this life so that you can be happy with Him in the next. God Bless you.  [APPLAUSE]

REICHARD: Justice Clarence Thomas giving the commencement address at Christendom College in Virginia on May 14th.


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