United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will address this year’s senior class in Hillsdale’s 164th commencement ceremony.
The past five classes have also considered Thomas, according to Senior Class Adviser John Quint ’09.
Thomas was born near Savannah, Georgia, in 1948; received an applied baccalaureate degree from Holy Cross College in 1971; and earned his juris doctor from Yale University in 1974. He was nominated to the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush and officially took his post on October 23, 1991.
“I was pretty ecstatic,” senior Randy Keefe said. “I couldn’t think of someone that I would be more excited about.”
Keefe, who originally suggested former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said he now believes Thomas is the best choice.
“Thomas was always at the top of our list,” senior class president Nick Brown said.
The selection process began at the end of the last academic year, when the senior class presented a refined list of candidates to the president’s office.
Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman were other names seniors suggested to give the commencement address.
In late September, the senior class officers chose Thomas, and the president’s office extended Thomas the invitation. Thomas accepted earlier this month.
“The role of the class officers was to go to the student body to hear their thoughts and hear who they wanted to bring to bring to campus,” Brown said. “Class officers then work together with the administration to find somebody that is going to excite students and that’s going to represent the Hillsdale brand well.”
Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who knows Thomas personally, describes him as modest, funny, and very talented.
“As a judge or justice he has written some of the most insightful opinions about the meaning of the Constitution in many decades. I think they are serious achievements,” Arnn said in an email. “In Justice Thomas we find excellence.”
Brown said he is confident Thomas can transcend politics with his speech even in the midst of a contentious election year. Some past seniors have expressed frustration with how political some commencement speakers have been.
“Mostly what we heard from the senior class is that they didn’t want a politician, especially in an election year,” Brown said. “While some would think of Clarence Thomas as a politician, we think he’s more than that. He’s a statesman, and he’s dealing with topics that are affecting us today.”
Senior Emily Runge said due to his position, Thomas isn’t allowed to be overtly political in his speech.
“I know that the speech is not going to be overtly political in the sense of engaging in the political topics of the day,” Runge said. “The election and current cases or legislative issues won’t be discussed because Supreme Court Justices are not allowed to talk about those.”
Senior Richard Caster said he hopes Thomas explains his dissenting opinion in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
In the June 2015 decision, the Supreme Court decided 5 – 4 that gay marriage is constitutionally protected the 14th Amendment and therefore cannot be denied by either the federal or state governments.
“I want him to talk about human dignity,” he said. “I think if you read his dissent in the gay marriage decision, when he talked about how no government can remove the dignity of man and how no government can bestow dignity upon man, I think there is such uncomfortable truth in that that I would love for him to come here and explain those words.”
Senior Dominic Restuccia is excited as Thomas rarely gives public addresses.
“I think everyone is going to be hanging onto every word because he doesn’t speak often, so everything he has to say is worth listening to,” Restuccia said.
Article updated Wednesday, January 27 at 11:52 PM EST.