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Justice Clarence Thomas Says The Supreme Court Is Flawed But Still Works

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas listens during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2020.
Al Drago
Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas listens during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2020.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says the court "may have become the most dangerous branch of government," but it still works, and faulted the media for making justices seem like politicians.

Thomas spoke Thursday night at the University of Notre Dame, the alma mater of the court's newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

Thomas said judges have been "venturing into areas we should not have entered into" but did not give any examples. He said the court was thought to be the "least dangerous branch" of government and that "we may have become the most dangerous, and I think that's problematic."

Thomas said the "craziness" during his confirmation was one of the results of that politicization. "It was absolutely about abortion," Thomas said.

Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearings were marked by accusations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas when he chaired the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. During his speech Thursday, three protesters stood up and shouted "I still believe Anita Hill" and were escorted from the auditorium.

Thomas also cautioned against "destroying our institutions because they don't give us what we want when we want it." Quoting his grandfather, Thomas said, "After you've done that, now what? What's your next step?"

Thomas said the court was "flawed but I will defend it because knowing all the disagreements it works. It may work sort of like a car with three wheels, but it still works."

Thomas becomes the third justice in recent weeks to publicly defend the court. Barrett, speaking at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, said justices are "not a bunch of partisan hacks." And Justice Stephen Breyer, who has been on a book tour, has also been speaking out about the court, including in an interview with NPR's Nina Totenberg where he criticized the court's ruling upholding a Texas law that effectively bans abortion in the state.

Taking questions after his speech, Thomas was asked what the biggest misperception of the court was.

"They think that we make policy," he replied. "I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference. So they think you're anti-abortion or something personally, they think that's the way you'll always come out."

Thomas said people think "you become like a politician," a problem, he said, that could jeopardize faith in the judiciary. "I think the media and the interest groups further that," he said.

Asked if there were times where his Catholic faith was in conflict with his judicial opinions, Thomas said there were times early in his tenure on the court where something conflicted with his personal opinion and his policy positions. "But I don't do a lot of hand-wringing," he said. "You do your job and you go cry alone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.