Need heroes, Thomas says
Law graduation send-off from Supreme Court justice
By Janis Reid and Allison Floyd email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left, and University of Georgia President Michael Adams greet law school graduates Saturday during commencement ceremonies at Stegeman Coliseum.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas urged 200 law graduates to ''be heroes'' at Saturday's University of Georgia School of Law commencement ceremony.
The controversial, conservative Thomas was the keynote speaker at the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2003 at Stegeman Coliseum, where he told students that in order to become heroes, they needed to avoid being ''a victim of circumstance.''
Relating his own experience as an example, Thomas recalled how he was unable to find a job in his home state of Georgia when he graduated Yale Law School in 1974. But he went on to work in the Missouri attorney general's office and by 1982, was appointed the chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The country is ''suffering in a culture of victimization'' which is ''saturated by complaining and protest,'' Thomas said.
''You cannot be a victim and a hero simultaneously,'' he declared. ''Be able to honestly say, 'I did my best to be my best.' If you can do that, somewhere you'll be a hero to someone.''
Thomas' selection as commencement keynote speaker drew criticism from about a dozen UGA law professors and 50 students who signed a petition earlier this month, objecting to the ''process and result'' of this year's choice of speaker.
Josh Belinfante, the 2003 law school class president, was one of the three students who selected Thomas as keynote speaker and were subsequently criticized for the decision.
Speaking at commencement, Belinfante said that the class would leave the law school a better place because it is ''the first class to have a sitting Supreme Court justice speaking to us.''
Graduates and their families agreed that the significance of Thomas' position as a justice outweighed any controversy over his ideology or voting record. Plus, many pointed out, the speech carried the same congratulatory encouragement of most commencement addresses.
''He's not running for office. He's not trying to score any points,'' said David Keener, whose fiancee, Emily Elizabeth Barrier, graduated Saturday, a week before their planned wedding.
''He kept it non-controversial and did what they invited him here to do,'' agreed Keener's father, Michael Keener.
Thomas, a Savannah native, joined the Supreme Court in 1991 after a contentious confirmation hearing in which liberal opponents challenged his conservative views and Anita Hill, a law professor who once worked for Thomas, accused him of sexual harassment.
Saturday's graduation drew much wider media coverage than most law school commencement ceremonies. Television crews set up behind the crowd of graduates and in front of the Tate Student Center, where UGA law professor Eugene Wilkes gave a 45-minute lecture about Thomas while the Supreme Court justice delivered his address in the Coliseum.
Graduate Stephen Belan said he thought the uproar over Thomas' invitation to speak was ''unfortunate.''
''Certain professors chose to make the day about them, rather than about the school or the students,'' said Belan, who will begin work soon as a clerk for a federal court judge. ''Protesting someone's political views goes against everything (professors) have been teaching us through these years.''
As graduates and their families milled around the Coliseum following the ceremony, snacking on refreshments and snapping photos in their caps and gowns, many of the graduates refused to talk about their opinions of Thomas. Others said it just didn't matter.
''The vast majority of students were excited he was here. Regardless of your political leanings, it's an honor to have a Supreme Court justice speak at your graduation,'' said Ledra Davis, who received a master's degree in business administration and worked for six years before beginning law school.
''I don't know what people expected - that he was going to make some big political statement?'' Davis added.