WASHINGTON — During Supreme Court arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas sits mute, not asking a single question while his colleagues on the bench jockey to get in the next interrogatory.
But this week, in front of 1,300 adoring conservative lawyers in a Washington hotel ballroom, another Clarence Thomas emerged: loquacious, folksy, irreverent, and totally at ease with his audience and himself.
The result was a glimpse of the court's most controversial figure letting down his hair, talking candidly about not just his upbringing but his feelings and his approach toward judging.
In a speech Thursday night to the Federalist Society, Thomas — who last month celebrated his 22nd anniversary on the court — compared his rise from poverty in Pin Point, Ga., to the Tom Hanks movie character who seems to accidentally stumble into fame and fortune everywhere he goes.
"One thing led to another and I wound up on the court," he said. "It was like totally Forrest Gump."
As he usually does, Thomas avoided any mention of the torturous confirmation hearings and allegations of sexual harassment brought by former employee Anita Hill, but he may have made a nod to the controversy when thanking fellow conservative Antonin Scalia — who attended the talk — for helping him get through his early years on the court.
"As beat up as I was when I got there, with the workload, I don't know how I would have got through without him," Thomas said. "I could trust him and I could count on him and I could talk to him."
Thomas, once one of the youngest justices ever to serve, told an audience including mostly ardent supporters that he had no interest in getting even with his opponents. Many liberals believe his ultraconservative voting record is in part payback for his treatment during confirmation.
"That is the opposite of the way I was raised," Thomas said, and "the opposite of the deal I made with God," when after attending a student riot in 1970 he asked God to help him "get hate out of [his] heart."
Though Thomas from time to time gives public speeches, he has not asked a question at oral arguments for over seven years, easily a record. Earlier this year he made a partially inaudible joke, apparently about the uselessness of his Yale Law degree, and even that tiny quip made news.
When he does speak publicly, it is almost always to conservative groups, which he seems to regard as part of the "family" he talked about Thursday night — a group that includes his wife, Virginia; Scalia; Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., another conservative; and his law clerks, whom he candidly admitted he chooses in part by whether they agree with his "first principles."
He rarely shares his feelings with liberal or even middle-of-the-road organizations. Some former friends say that Thomas stopped seeing them when they publicly disagreed over important issues.
Becoming a justice was crushingly difficult for a man who, he candidly admitted, was not steeped in the law. But he said "it was not nearly as hard as picking beans" in the fields of Georgia in summer, as his grandfather made him do as a youngster.
Thomas' transformation Thursday night may have been eased by the format. Though he appeared in a cavernous room with 135 tables, and his image was projected to the audience on large-screen televisions, Thomas was not asked to deliver a formal speech.
Instead he sat on stage in a leather armchair and was "interviewed" by Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Sykes introduced Thomas as a longtime friend of the Federalist Society, a 30-year-old movement founded in law schools that has played a prominent role in helping Republican presidents reshape the federal judiciary into a predominantly conservative force.
There was no mention in the 45-minute discussion of the criticism by liberal groups over the propriety of the dinner itself. Some questioned whether the two federal judges should have appeared at Thursday's $200-a-head event, which critics described as a fundraiser for the society. Its members take strong positions on issues before the Supreme Court.
While Thomas said at the onset that "this is really embarrassing" and "all this attention makes me uncomfortable," Sykes said that Thomas had been "really loose" at the dinner table, so she thought he would be "a lot of fun." And he was.
Reminded that he had been "something of a campus radical" at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., in the 1960s, Thomas said "Yeah, but I wasn't a dope head. The '60s were different."
Thomas said he turned to law after dropping out of the seminary, where he had hoped to become a priest.
In his early years Thomas sometimes talked dismissively about his work on the court, saying once he would rather be out driving his motor home with his wife. But Thursday he talked about his responsibilities with reverence, saying he treasured his job.
"I have gotten to the point where it's like the priesthood. It's what I was called to do," he said.
And he said he had grown more idealistic about the country, "dragging" his law clerks every year to the Gettysburg battlefield to see where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address.
He said he wasn't familiar with SCOTUSblog, a website focusing on the court that is popular with lawyers.
"I know nothing about that," he said. "I try not to read anything about what we do, because I was there. That's hearsay," he said to more laughter.
In one pointed reference to his judicial philosophy, Thomas said he thought stare decisis, the judicial principle that once an issue is decided it is the law, was important, but not important enough to keep him from overturning decisions he doesn't agree with.
"I guess they don't think much of stare decisis either," he said when the audience cheered.
Thomas, despite promising to follow Supreme Court precedents during his confirmation, has called for overturning the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision and other liberal legal icons.
Of his many separate concurring or dissenting opinions, often based on legal theories even more conservative than those of most of his fellow conservatives, he said they may come into prominence in the future, aging "like a fine wine."