Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas opened up to an audience of attorneys in his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, comparing critics of the bench to die-hard sports fans and wondering aloud whether they suffer from a "disease of illiteracy or laziness."
Thomas, who was born in nearby Pin Point, told the Augusta Bar Association that the downward spiral of public discourse from people who are "drunk on their own opinions" must come to an end.
"You don't just keep nagging and nagging and nagging. At some point it's got to stop. Sometimes, too much is too much," he said. "I think we are reaching the point where we are beginning to undermine the integrity of the law we're going to need."
Thomas has built one of the court's most conservative records in nearly 20 years on the bench, but he said he's still maintained close relationships with his colleagues despite fierce disagreements.
"This job is a humbling job," he said. "It's the end of the food chain. And some people can do it, and some can't. But what it teaches you is that you don't have all the answers. The people for whom this is an easy job are those who have never done it."
The critics, he said, often remind him of overly passionate sports fans.
"You can't get a Georgia fan to say something good about Georgia Tech," he said. "When a Georgia fan sees them, they see the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world."
Much of the commentary about the court comes from people with clear stakes in the debate, he said.
"There are times when the people who talk theoretically about the issues that we decide, you often wonder, 'Have they read the opinions, have they read the cases?'" he said. "I think there's a disease of illiteracy, or laziness, because just the commentary will tell you they haven't read it."
Thomas said one of the most important lessons he learned came early on when Justice Lewis Powell, who retired about four years before Thomas was appointed in 1991, told him something he'll never forget.
"When you think you belong here, it's time for you to leave."