HUNTINGTON -- Despite being a diehard Nebraska Cornhusker fan, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas couldn't help himself.

Thomas took part in an enthusiastic "We Are … Marshall!" cheer led by Marshall University President Stephen J. Kopp during his appearance Monday on the campus.

When in Huntington …

Thomas spoke at the monthly meeting of the Huntington branch of AARP during a special meeting at MU's Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. Thomas, 59, was the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice to visit Marshall, which is named for legendary Justice John Marshall.

The auditorium wasn't filled to capacity, but many prominent people attended, such as state Supreme Court justices Brent Benjamin and Spike Maynard, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver, Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson, Putnam Circuit Judge Ed Eagloski and prominent Huntington attorney Mike Ferrell.

Thomas used sports analogies several times during his talk.

"We're like referees," the Georgia native said of judges. "We're neutral. And we use the rules given to us. You don't want referees making up rules as they go along.

"You want consistency and impartiality from referees, including the ones who wear black robes. After all, it's your Constutition."

Thomas also talked about how the nine Supreme Court justices don't always agree on legal issues, but a common civility bonds them together.

"We're the antithesis of what you normally see from Washington, D.C.," he said. "It's not about our differences. It's about what we have in common.

"We always begin our work with a handshake. We always have lunch together. It's hard to break bread together and hate each other.

"Sure, there is disagreement and exasperation, but we're friends."

He described the Supreme Court as a calm and civil place in the middle of a storm, much like a reading room of a library.

"A temper tantrum does not supersede the Constitution," Thomas said. "We have an obligation to be as responsible as we can when interpreting laws. … I tell my law clerks all the time, the structure is what was meant to run the country. Not the amendments.

"It's not about us. It's about the Constitution. I took an oath to God to do this job impartially"

In one of the evening's lighter moments, the conservative judge took a jab at critics of the court.

"All you need to be an expert on the Supreme Court is a couple of drinks and a mouth,'' Thomas said. After the laughter stopped, he went on to say court critics usually aren't informed.

"Those who are outside the building have no idea what's really happening,'' he said. "I don't think you can be in the position of criticizing if you don't know anything about it. You can't criticize if you aren't informed."

Still, Thomas seemed to be unfazed by criticism.

"People have different perspectives of the court, and it's good to hear what other people think of the work we do."

Thomas also took time to praise John Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice in U.S. History and played a major role in shaping the U.S. legal system.

"We wouldn't have the judicial system today without Justice Marshall," Thomas said. "He defined the role of the judicial branch. Marbury v. Madison is the beginning of our system of judicial review.

"It's been almost 16 years ago, but I still remember sitting in the John Marshall chair for the first time."

The two state Supreme Court justices in attendance praised Thomas' appearance.

"Justice Thomas is a great jurist," Benjamin said. "It's an honor to have an opportunity to talk to him. He's intelligent, humble, respectful and personable."

"The talk was fascinating," Maynard said. "And it's a real coup for Huntington, Marshall and the AARP to get Justice Thomas here."

Other highlights of Thomas' speech:

* He recalled listening to his grandfather and his friends arguing over issues of the day, topics ranging from politics to weather to sports.

"The disagreements didn't separate them," he said. "It kept them interesting. Bonds like that have been weakened in today's society."

* When asked to talk about the most difficult vote he has cast in his 16 years on the Supreme Court, Thomas thought for a moment.

"Let me just evade that question," he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

* Thomas said he is a frequent visitor to the Mountain State.

"I come through West Virginia quite a bit, usually in my mobile home," he said. "I just don't broadcast it that I'm here.

"But I will come back and, hopefully, have a chance to meet with students here."

* Thomas was invited to Huntington by Dolly Rozzi, head of the Huntington AARP chapter. She worked for Thomas when he was chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in the 1980s.

Despite being a staunch liberal Democrat to Thomas' conservative views, Rozzi said she always got along well with her former boss.

"I really enjoyed working for this man,'' she said.

The meeting celebrated the first anniversary of Huntington's AARP branch, which has grown to more than 200 members.

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