U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Americans are understandably losing confidence in their government, lamenting that the nation’s capital has become “broken in some ways.”
Speaking just days after marking his 25th anniversary on the court, Thomas entertained a friendly audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Wednesday with stories about his late colleague Antonin Scalia and a wisecrack about Obamacare.
Thomas, 68, didn’t directly address the vacancy that has lingered since Scalia’s Feb. 13 death, but when asked about it and the judicial confirmation process, he delivered a somber assessment.
“The city is broken in some ways,” said Thomas, who was narrowly confirmed in 1991 after a contentious hearing centering on sexual harassment allegations. “At some point, we have got to recognize that we’re destroying our institutions.”
Thomas said he understood the perception that the court, which now has four Republican and four Democratic appointees, was just another political branch of the government.
“I don’t think people owe us, reflexively, confidence. I think it’s something we earn,” he said. “Perhaps we should ask ourselves what have we done to not earn it or earn it.”
Those sober remarks stood out in a session otherwise marked by laugh lines and passionate defenses of his constitutional reasoning. Thomas said that during one Supreme Court session, Scalia leaned over to say that a precedent being discussed was one of the worst in the court’s history. Thomas said he reminded his colleague, “Nino, you wrote it.”
Discussing his frequent trips to Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, Thomas briefly pondered what the world would be like if the South and General Robert E. Lee hadn’t been defeated in the pivotal Civil War battle there.
“If Lee had won, that’d have been a problem,” Thomas, who is black, said to the white moderator. As the audience began to laugh, he added, “It’d have been more of a problem for me than you.”
Thomas also couldn’t resist a quip about the Affordable Care Act, which he voted to strike down in 2012, and the recent news that premiums on some health plans are rising an average of 25 percent.
The law’s name, Thomas said, “seems like a misnomer, considering all the things that are going on.”