U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at Duquesne University Tuesday afternoon on topics ranging from his childhood in segregated Georgia to his 22-year tenure on the nation's highest court.
Thomas is the only black justice to serve on the Supreme Court after Thurgood Marshall. Thomas filled Marshall's vacated position on the bench.
Born in Pin Point, Ga. in 1948, Thomas said he grew up in a poor black community, but he was pushed toward academic success by his grandfather and the nuns at his Catholic school.
"We were told, under all circumstances, we were inherently equal, and that was in the face of segregation and theories that said or suggested that we were inferior," Thomas said. "But they held us to that standard."
His outstanding grades landed him in two Catholic seminaries, but the future justice dropped out and opted instead to get a bachelor's degree from Holy Cross College. He eventually earned a law degree from Yale University despite facing racism from his peers, but he could not find a job for several years afterward.
After holding jobs as an attorney in the Georgia Attorney General's office and in the private sector, Thomas began working in government jobs through the 1980s, and he was eventually nominated as a federal district judge by President George H.W. Bush.
Thomas would ascend to the Supreme Court in 1991, but not before a scandal erupted at his Senate confirmation hearings. Anita Hill, a former subordinate of the nominee, accused him of sexual harassment. Thomas vehemently denied the charges, arguing that it was an attempt to suppress "uppity blacks," and the opposition to his nomination eventually gave way.
Since joining the Supreme Court, Thomas has been one of the most conservative voices on the bench. However, he said he dislikes the term "black conservative" and his categorization as a Republican. Thomas said he only registered with the GOP to vote for Ronald Reagan. He said he's more of a libertarian.
"I was trying to figure things out, but people were telling me that, 'You're black. We already have the views you're supposed to have. You're not supposed to read Ayn Rand. You're not supposed to think about things. That's bizarre,'" Thomas said. "Well, why do we go to school? Just give us our list of what we're supposed to think. It saves a lot of time."
Notoriously silent during oral arguments, Thomas said he believes his role is to listen. He suggested the high court hears too many oral arguments compared to other nations, such as Argentina.
Though he refrained from commenting on any current cases, Thomas said he tries to be as respectful as possible when writing dissenting opinions.
"It would be enormously prideful and presumptuous of me to assume that I have the right answer," he said. "I have an opinion. I do not have the gospel."