Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during the court's official photo session in Washington. (Dennis Brack / Bloomberg / September 29, 2009)

WASHINGTON -- During Supreme Court arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas sits mute, not asking a single question while his colleagues on the bench jockey to get in the next interrogatory.

But late Thursday night, in front of 1,300 adoring conservative lawyers in a Washington hotel ballroom, another Clarence Thomas emerged: loquacious, folksy, irreverent, and totally at ease with his audience and himself.

The result was the rare sighting of a Supreme Court justice letting down his hair, talking candidly about not just his upbringing but his feelings and his approach toward judging.

Becoming a justice was crushingly difficult for a man who, he candidly admitted, was not steeped in the law. But he said “it was not nearly as hard as picking beans” in the fields of Georgia in summer, as his grandfather made him do as a youngster.

Thomas’ transformation Thursday night may have been eased by the format. Though he appeared in a cavernous room with 135 tables, and his image was projected to the audience on large-screen televisions, Thomas was not asked to deliver a formal speech.

Instead he sat on stage in a leather armchair and was “interviewed” by another federal judge, Diane Sykes of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Sykes introduced Thomas as a longtime friend of the Federalist Society, a 30-year old movement founded in law schools that has played a prominent role in helping Republican presidents reshape the federal judiciary into a predominantly conservative force in American society.

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Sykes, who was formerly married to a conservative talk show host in Milwaukee and is herself mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee in a Republican presidency, skillfully took the justice through his compelling biography, starting with his birth in a Pin Point, Ga., shanty that was wallpapered with newspapers.

Never in the 45-minute discussion did Thomas or Sykes allude explicitly to the ferocious controversy 22 years ago last month over allegations that Thomas sexually harassed a former employee, Anita Hill.

Nor was there mention of the criticism by liberal groups over the propriety of the dinner itself. Some questioned whether the two federal judges should have appeared at Thursday’s $200-a-head event, which critics described as a fundraiser for the society.

While Thomas said at the onset that “this is really embarrassing” and “all this attention makes me uncomfortable,” Sykes said that Thomas had been “really loose” at the dinner table “so I think he’s going to be a lot of fun.” And he was.

Reminded that he had been “something of a campus radical” at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., in the 1960s, Thomas said “Yeah, but I wasn’t a dope head. The '60’s were different.”

“I was a bit of a radical,” Thomas said. “Things were changing. We were very upset.” But he said that his attitude changed after he witnessed a riot at Harvard in April 1970.

“I made a promise to God that if I got this hate out of my heart I would never hate again,” he said. And he said that contrary to some descriptions of him, he had no interest in getting even with his opponents in life.

“That is the opposite of the way I was raised,” and “the opposite of the deal I made with God on April 16,” he said.

Thomas said he turned to law after dropping out of the seminary where he had hoped to become a priest.

After describing his early legal career, which began as an assistant attorney general in Missouri, Thomas said that “one thing led to another and I wound up on the court. It was like totally 'Forrest Gump,'” Thomas said, referring to the movie character who seems to accidentally stumble into fame and fortune.

He said that it was Justice Antonin Scalia, who was in the audience and at one point engaged in banter with Thomas, who saved him once he got to the court.

“As beat up as I was when I got there, with the workload, I don’t know how I would have got through without him,” Thomas said. “I could trust him and I could count on him and I could talk to him.”

Thomas and Scalia have been close allies on the court, voting together most of the time.