GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Recent Yale law school grad? Want to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Get in line behind the kid from Creighton.
Thomas on Friday sharply criticized law school rankings - particularly the U.S. News and World Report annual list - during a talk with University of Florida law school students, comparing the bias against lower-tier schools to the discrimination minorities and women have faced. He said the individual, not the school that issued the degree, should be most important in determining a lawyer's success.
"Isn't that the antithesis of what this country is supposed to be about? Isn't that the bias that we fought about on racial terms, or on terms of sex, or on terms of religion, etc.?" Thomas said. "My new bias, which I now embrace, is that I don't eliminate the Ivies in hiring, but I intentionally prefer kids from regular backgrounds and regular students."
Thomas spoke candidly for nearly an hour and a half, taking questions from four law school students in front of their peers. He avoided talking about specific cases and talked more about lessons learned growing up poor in Savannah, Ga., during a time of segregation and reflecting on his nearly 21 years on the nation's highest court.
Asked about the most important decision the court has made before he was sworn in and since, he said "I don't know" and quickly moved on. But he spoke extensively about what he learned from his mother, who earned $10 a week, and a nearly toothless janitor who cleaned Senate office buildings. He was asked about what he wanted his legacy to be and used humor to answer the question.
"I told my clerks that when they do my epitaph it should be something like, 'He did his job and he died,'" Thomas said. "My legacy - I'm going to be dead. I mean, I'm not going to be here to read the legacy. So I just do my job. I don't think that much about it."
That comes from a man who said the call from President George H.W. Bush asking him to serve on the Supreme Court "was one of those Forrest Gump moments." When he graduated from Yale law school - ranked by U.S. News and World Report as tops in the nation - it was a tough job market. He took the only offer made to him, an assistant attorney general in Missouri, and his classmates laughed about it. But that career path led him to where he is now.
"I hoped and prayed it would not happen," Thomas said about his appointment. "When the president calls, there's only one answer: 'Yes, Mr. President.'"
But the biggest point he made to the students was that they don't have to be a Yale grad to be successful. And it became clear to him when he had four clerks - from Rutgers, George Mason, George Washington and Creighton, which is ranked No. 135 by U.S. News and World Report - and they told them they were being referred to on blogs as "TTT." He asked what that meant and was told "third tier trash."
"I think the obsession is somewhat perverse. I never look at those rankings. I don't even know where they are. I thought U.S. News and World Report was out of business," Thomas said. "There are smart kids every place. They are male, they are female, they are black, they're white, they're from the West, they're from the South, they're from public schools, they're from public universities, they're from poor families, they're from sharecroppers, they're from all over. ... I look at the kid who shows up. Is this a kid that could work for me?"
He told the students that he has spent his entire life fighting perceptions.
"Think about it. Suddenly we've created this kind of nobility. Here's the highest nobility, here's the next nobility," Thomas said. "I don't do that, and I think it would be a violation of everything I believe in to do something like that. And I don't think it's good for us as a profession."
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bsfarrington.
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