U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may keep his silence in Washington, but he had plenty of warm words in Charlotte for a former colleague Friday.
Thomas joined dozens of current and former federal judges and members of the legal community to help unveil a portrait of David Sentelle, a former Charlottean who is chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
“I am deeply honored to be here in beautiful Charlotte, North Carolina, to participate in the hanging of a wonderful man,” Thomas said at the federal courthouse.
Sentelle, 69, is a Haywood County native who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 and elevated to the appeals court two years later. He replaced Antonin Scalia, who had been named to the Supreme Court.
In a packed courtroom where he argued cases as a lawyer, Sentelle listened as colleagues, former clerks and even a former boss paid tribute.
Chief Judge Bob Conrad of the U.S. Western District called him “somebody whose influence lingers in this district and in this courtroom.”
But it was Thomas who shared the spotlight with his former appeals court colleague.
When Thomas was named to the appeals court in 1990, the Georgia native found Sentelle a kindred spirit.
“In Judge Sentelle I discerned a fellow displaced Southerner,” said Thomas, 63.
In his deep baritone, Thomas said the two shared an interest in NASCAR and country music, even an affinity for dropping verbs.
“It was OK to say, ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Who you people?’” he said. “Judge Sentelle has never forgotten his Southern roots … North Carolina’s loss has been the nation’s gain.”
He recalled how the two would “chew the fat” over cigars before President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1991.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that (Sentelle) was involved in the right-wing conspiracy that shipped me off to my current place of employment,” Thomas said to laughs.
Sentelle spoke briefly, thanking friends and family and musing about his unforeseen path from an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte to heading one of the nation’s highest courts.
“Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans,” he said.
Earlier, Sentelle and Thomas discussed the law before a luncheon audience at the Charlotte City Club. Somebody asked Thomas what he’d change about the process.
Do away with oral arguments, he said.
Thomas hasn’t spoken during the high court’s oral arguments for more than six years.