Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have said that his colleagues were never so close after the Supreme Court building, which opened in 1923, provided separate bathrooms for each justice. By all recent accounts, the personal relations among the nine justices are cordial and respectful, if somewhat distant.
Justice Clarence Thomas has written that after he was confirmed by the Senate, he was greeted warmly by his new colleagues and enjoyed a two-hour chat with his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall. He privately took umbrage when publication of former Justice Harry Blackmun's papers revealed memos in which his law clerks referred sarcastically to other justices--something Thomas said he would never allow. The warm tone of the justices' official letter to the retiring Justice David Souter last month and of Souter's reply contrasts with the icy prose of similar letters written years ago when various justices were not on speaking terms with each other.
Even so, serving on the Supreme Court seems to be a lonely business. Justices see each other at sessions of the court and in conference, but their offices are far apart and their paths otherwise may not cross. Much of the work of a justice involves reading old court cases and parsing statutes. Some former Supreme Court justices were known for lobbying their colleagues. But Thomas says that once the court's conferences are over, he communicates only in writing and with all eight of his colleagues at once.
This solitary atmosphere runs counter to Thomas' sociable nature, and he seeks human connections in other ways. He is known for the interest he takes in court employees and for speaking to groups of students and young lawyers. He has struck up friendly mentoring relationships with judges who share many of his experiences but not necessarily his views, like Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears. He has regular sessions with his law clerks to trade ideas.
Outside the court, Thomas is happy to be an ordinary Joe. He loves fast cars, as he recounts in "My Grandfather's Son," and has been known to drive a black Corvette. He has been grand marshal at NASCAR races and likes to mingle with stock car fans. While other justices attend legal seminars in Europe over the summer, he and his wife, Ginni, like to drive around the country in their recreational vehicle. But even during the court's three-month recess he, like the other justices, reads briefs and legal articles in preparation for the cases to come.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.