Once a year the Federalist Society has a dinner in Washington DC. It is a dinner for lawyers.

This year they promised an appearance by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I wondered what he might have to say as their featured guest; I had seen him a few times while he was at work and he did not seem like a talkative man.

The pre-dinner reception was breaking up as I wound through the Omni Shoreham's subterranean caverns to the press section, four chairs and a tiny riser in the farthest corner of the ballroom surrounded by bus bins and one-way doors in and out of the kitchen.

On the other side of a sea of sparkling tables was a modest stage with two leather chairs where Justice Thomas would later chat with Judge Diane Sykes, a G.W. appointee to the 7th Circuit Court, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and, according to my lawyer friend, "sort of a smart Michele Bachmann."

Canon 4C of the Code of Ethics forbids federal judges from lending their names to "fundraising" events. Since the Society charged up to $200 a plate for a dinner more than 1,300 people attended, you could say some funds were raised! (The Society doesn't.) This could present a problem for Diane Sykes, on account of her being a federal judge. No ethical dilemma for Justice Thomas, though: as a member of our nation's most powerful court, no ethical standards actually apply to him.

There was a slow migration of North American Federalist Lawyers from across the hall and the food was deployed while we waited for the program to start. (Federalists do not like to eat while Supreme Court Justices are talking.) As the white-gloved staff cleared away the braised short ribs and distributed tiny desserts, a few guests who were sitting nearby stepped over to talk. Were we the members of the media? they wanted to know. They'd noticed that we'd taken up all the chairs that would fit between the bus bins and offered me a seat at their partly empty table.

They were law students who had made the trip to DC from Connecticut and Michigan.

One of them had the last name Koch. Any relation? "If I was, I'd be in a bathtub full of money."

Federalists of America, behold your floppy-haired future.

Finally it was time for the main event. Clarence Thomas protested that he felt embarrassed by the attention after Diane Sykes spent about five minutes giving a capsule bio on his path from humble beginnings to the Supreme Court. (He's a seminary dropout!) He claimed he had no grand plan to become get his lifetime appointment, just that

"one thing led to another and I wound up on the Court ... It was like, totally Forrest Gump. I just kept showing up to my job and then I showed up in all these pictures and one day I showed up in a picture in Kennebunkport."

Not bad for someone who says he was "selling Black Panther newspapers" and being watched by the FBI for going to meetings at the "radical bookstore" when he was applying for law school.

He didn't always like his current job, but he has settled in. He likes having an office next door to his best friend Justice Scalia, who was at a table in front of the stage. Scalia was the one he could really count on in the beginning when things were a little tense between him and the other members of the Court.

"And what about now?" Sykes pressed. Does the summer recess come as a welcome break? Thomas scoffed at the idea of strife with his coworkers, claiming "I never have any trouble," then shrugged over at Scalia, who yelled back "I get out of there as soon as I can!"

In one of his more touching moments, he seemed to show genuine affection for his law clerks. "These kids are my family." Sykes asked how he selects them. "Pretty arbitrarily," though one of his major concerns is to hire "kids who are not jerks." Also they must have a tolerance for field trips, since he confessed that he drags every group of them to Gettysburg to see the battlefield. "I take them on my bus." (My new friend Mr. Koch helpfully informed me that Clarence Thomas has his own RV for road trips with Ginni.)

He even had a grudgingly kind word for Yale Law School, his scorn for which evidently moved him to speak his only public words from the bench in the past seven years.

In spite of his protests that he doesn't "know that much about the legal profession," Judge Sykes gamely tried to get him to compare how the Court functions now compared to when he started in 1991. He claimed he never reads anything written about the Court because "I was there. That's hearsay," and he described contemporary oral arguments as more or less the same as they were two decades ago: "You know, there are a lot of briefs and people doing a lot of talking." Indeed.

As his time drew to a close, Thomas noted that while he at first resisted being a judge, merely fulfilling his duties -- "You know, it's your J-O-B" -- he had come to see it as his destined vocation, like the calling he once felt for the priesthood. He noted that, when compared to picking beans or "walking behind a horse in the Georgia sun" for a living, his position on the most powerful court in the country was "not that bad." I hear there is also a basketball court upstairs!

After taking an opportunity to say how great Abraham Lincoln was, Justice Thomas thanked us for staying so late and even gave Judge Sykes a hug as the crowd applauded. With the guest of honor leaving the stage, the din of 1,300 federalists all juiced up on an hour of conservative Supreme Courtage swelled in the room. We slipped upstairs and made for the bar, but of course they followed.

Even the Woodley Park metro stop had more tuxes than normal for a weeknight.

Until next year, everybody! Remember to stay true to your founding principles and keep your eyes out for encroachment on your precious liberties. It takes a village to protect the village from the sinister hand of the federal government.

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