On a rainy October afternoon, Justice Clarence Thomas is seated in temporary chambers at the Supreme Court. The office he has occupied for most of the past 16 years is being remodeled as part of a larger renovation of the Supreme Court building. Thomas' relationships on the court are also being reworked. For one thing, the case conferences presided over by the new Chief Justice are more elaborate than they used to be. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist was more of a "keep-the-trains-running-on-time kind of guy," says Thomas. And the more extensive back-and-forths under John Roberts have been extremely civil, despite the perception on the outside that the court--mimicking the political climate elsewhere in the capital--is nastily divided at the moment. "This place is so different from what is beyond these walls," he says. "You disagree with someone here, and it is 'I respectfully disagree.' People have different approaches to the Constitution and statutory construction, and there are different conclusions. That is why you say, 'I respectfully dissent.'"
In fact, the growing respect the Justices have for one another has led to more contact among them under Roberts, not less. "This is a place where rather than hurling aspersions, people will actually sit at lunch and chat and laugh," Thomas says. "When we have formal meetings on the bench or at conference, we have lunch. When I first got here, it was two, three people, a maximum of four. Now--today, for example--it was the entire court, all nine. It is an interesting experience."
Thomas, who has just published his memoir, My Grandfather's Son, argues that the number of 5-to-4 decisions under Roberts does not reflect personal conflict so much as disagreements over principles. "Some cases are harder than others, and some stress you out more as you are working through them, but no, I don't see that as particularly saying the members of the court don't get along. They simply don't agree."
The atmosphere of politeness , says Thomas, comes from a basic respect for the institution. "People know they are working on something bigger than all of us, something that is going to be here when we are gone," he says. "So you don't get these kinds of personal reactions where people are saying they are upset, emotionally hurt about this or that. They might be exasperated. We are human beings. But in the end we realize this is not about us."
Thomas says there is no vote-trading among the Justices and he has never been pressured by Rehnquist or Roberts to change his opinion in order to create the image of a more unified court. He says there are attempts at persuasion in conference and when opinions circulate internally before being issued; they arrive as comments on the draft opinions of others. "There is very little face-to-face or buttonholing in the hallway," he says. "It is done by letter. So it will be 'Dear Clarence, I don't agree with this point or that point.'" Justice Byron White never failed to sign off with "Cheers, Byron," according to Thomas.
The job has deepened his humility, says Thomas. "If there is any lesson I've learned since I have been here, it is that this job is easy for people who don't do it, have no authority to do it or have their minds made up on a particular side of an issue. For the rest of us, who have to start at square one and decide cases, it is a hard job, and it is a humbling job. So I will not criticize other people who have had to decide cases in their time. And I reflect back on what Justice Thurgood Marshall said to me: 'I had to do in my time what I had to do, and you have to do in your time what you have to do.'"