“The events of earlier this week is one symptom of that,” Thomas said. He added that “you cannot have a free society” without stable institutions.
Thomas’ comments echoed a speech from last fall when the justice decried attempts to “manipulate” institutions. Back then, he appeared to be nodding to progressive attempts to add more members to the Supreme Court to dilute the conservative majority. “I think we should be careful destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want when we want,” he said at the time.
On Friday, Thomas reiterated that he believes Supreme Court justices are obligated to take a fresh look at established precedent and shouldn’t be bound by the judicial doctrine called “stare decisis.” The legal principle is translated as “stand by that which has been decided” and is meant to reinforce stability in the law. Thomas has long been a critic of a strict reading of the doctrine.
“We use stare decisis as a mantra when we don’t want to think,” Thomas said Friday. But he noted that unlike lower courts, the Supreme Court is the “end of the line.” If the justices “don’t take a look at it, who does?” he asked.
He has expressed similar sentiments before, but the talk comes the same week that Politico obtained the draft opinion that sets out to overturn a nearly 50-year-old precedent.
The existence of the texts infuriated critics who said the justice should recuse himself from any future cases regarding the select committee’s work and the January 6 insurrection. In January, he was the lone public dissenter when the court allowed the release of several Trump White House documents to House investigators, although the texts from Ginni Thomas were not involved in that dispute.
The text messages took place between early November 2020 and mid-January 2021. Ginni Thomas recently revealed that she attended the pro-Trump rally that preceded the January 6 attack but said she “played no role” in planning the events of that day.
Federal law requires justices to recuse themselves from proceedings in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Another section of the law requires disqualification if a spouse has an “interest” that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.
On Friday, Thomas — who was being interviewed by a former clerk — was not asked about the ethics controversy.
And before the friendly crowd, he wasn’t pressed directly about the unprecedented breach of protocol that occurred when the draft opinion was disclosed on Monday.
Although the leak stunned members of the court, Thomas appeared relaxed and upbeat Friday when he was greeted by a standing ovation. The moderator commenced the talk by asking him about his health. “Well, I’m vertical,” Thomas said and then burst into a booming laugh.
He touched on a wide variety of subjects, including his “bias” of hiring clerks from what he called “modest circumstances.” He noted that most of the other justices hire clerks from the Ivy League, but he said that those who don’t come from elite law schools bring “wisdom” and “common sense, hard work and decency.” He also said opinion writing should be straightforward with an aim of “getting it right.”
“There is no need to make the work product inaccessible,” he said.
“It is really hard to see him leave,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Ryan Nobles, Annie Grayer, Zachary Cohen and Jamie Gangel contributed to this report.