Justice speaks at North Laurel school

High court's Thomas visits fifth-graders

May 25, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a set of rulings to fifth-graders at Laurel Woods Elementary School yesterday: Turn off the television. Learn how to use and enjoy the local public library. Study as much and as hard as you can.

Whether his guidelines will be carried out is another matter, but the nation's second African-American justice held the enthusiastic youngsters' attention for more than an hour at the North Laurel school.

He spoke to about 50 pupils who invited him to explain the workings of the judicial branch of the federal government, a subject they are studying in social studies classes.

After a brief explanation of the appellate process, an affable Thomas opened the floor to questions from the fifth-graders.

One pupil asked which skills he learned in school to become a judge. Thomas outlined a laundry list beginning with learning "how to read well. There's nothing you can do that's more important," he said. "You have to learn how to think well, to think analytically and reason well. You also have to learn how to be quiet, to listen. And you have to learn how to write.

"No matter how hard it is, if you can do those things, you're well on your way," the 50-year-old Thomas said.

While he tried on a few occasions to keep his answers simple or vague enough for youngsters (explaining that the death penalty is "really bad news" and saying only that he made "enough" money as a Supreme Court justice to live comfortably), Thomas did not shy away from questions posed by the inquisitive youngsters.

What does he like most about his job? Being able to "think through hard problems and work through the answers carefully without people interfering in the process," Thomas said.

Being a judge is "pretty hard," he said, conceding that it is difficult "to make decisions about other people's lives."

The least enjoyable part of being Clarence Thomas, considered by some the most controversial Supreme Court justice, is "the need for security. I can't go anyplace without being recognized," he said. "I'm always watched and I can't be left alone."

The fifth-graders seemed unaware of Thomas' notoriety and his knack for attracting publicity. None of the children asked about his infamous 1991 confirmation hearings at which he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a former aide at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which Thomas ran in the 1980s.

While on the bench, Thomas' rulings against affirmative action and other civil rights initiatives and his public appearances have been lightning rods for controversy.

In 1996, he was invited to speak at an awards ceremony for eighth-grade pupils at a Prince George's County school, and then was uninvited after a community threatened to protest. Thomas eventually spoke at the school without incident.

Last year, some members of the country's largest organization of African-American lawyers, the National Bar Association, were critical of the decision to invite Thomas as a speaker.

Now, after years of silence, Thomas is accepting more public speaking engagements and responding to his vocal critics.

No cries of outrage were voiced at Thomas' appearance yesterday. "This is a very historic event for Howard County," said schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. Thomas was "very warm and has a nice style with students."

Thomas left the building trailed by his two security guards after shaking the hand of every pupil in the audience.

Ten-year-old Danielle Thornburg said she liked the fact that Thomas "doesn't think that his job is easy. He let you know that it's hard to get his job."

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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