AUGUSTA — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was welcomed with a mostly standing ovation when he took the podium Wednesday to dedicate Augusta's sparkling new courthouse, but not everyone stood. Some in the crowd remained conspicuously seated, greeting the Georgia native with a studied silence.
The mixed reception underscored the strained relations between Thomas and some black residents in his home state. Many remain upset he was tapped to speak at the opening of a court building dedicated to pioneering civil rights lawyer John "Jack" Ruffin Jr., who later became the first black chief judge of the state Court of Appeals.
"The folks that had a vested interest weren't really consulted," said Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins. "Look, imagine you invite someone to your house to spend the night and you don't ask your wife, and it may be someone she didn't agree with. Would that go well?"
Many critics said selecting the 62-year-old Thomas to speak was a divisive and disrespectful move, considering the justice's conservative record and stance against affirmative action programs.
"He has a tough relationship with his native state," said James L. Kendrick, a businessman who is a longtime leader in Augusta's black community. "In most cases and by the standard of a lot of black people, Justice Thomas voted to the opposite of what they felt was good. People feel betrayed by him."
During his two-day visit to Augusta, Thomas pushed back against criticism of his conservative record. At the dedication, he said judges must serve as a bulwark against public opinion and hoped "this courthouse will always be a refuge from the shifting tides of public interest."
"Judge Ruffin understood these higher ideals of the law, as a lawyer and a judge," said Thomas, who smiled and bantered with dozens of people who gathered around him after his roughly 10-minute speech seeking to shake his hand or pose for photos.
Augusta's leaders defended Thomas' selection to speak at the event honoring Ruffin, who is legendary in the community for having led the legal charge that forced the integration of the county's schools before he was appointed to the bench. Ruffin died in January 2010 at age 75.
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who wrote the letter inviting Thomas to speak, said the community should be proud that a sitting Supreme Court justice is dedicating its $61 million judicial complex. Besides, he said, Thomas shouldn't be prevented from speaking because some disagree with his judicial philosophy.
"We live in a diverse nation that affords different points of view," Copenhaver said. "Justice Thomas is a Georgia native and it's appropriate for him to speak at the event as well. It offers a real perspective on America. People have differing views, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."
The criticism likely came as no surprise to Thomas, who was born in the tiny community of Pin Point, which is about 140 miles south of Augusta. Thomas, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, has served on the high court since 1991.
The justice's 2003 speech at the University of Georgia's law school drew criticism from students and a protest from a law professor, who blasted Thomas' stances on civil liberties and affirmative action in a dueling speech across campus. A return visit to deliver UGA's commencement address in 2008 provoked a similar controversy, prompting 1,200 people to endorse an online petition opposing his selection to speak.
Thomas's troubled relationship with Georgia blacks stems partly from his departure from the record of the late Thurgood Marshall, the liberal giant he succeeded who was the court's first black justice, said Blair Kelley, a North Carolina State University professor who teaches the history of the civil rights movement. Before his appointment to the high court, Marshall fought for integration as the NAACP's special counsel.
"Black audiences see him as a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, someone who comes directly in the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, but that his decisions don't reflect that legacy adequately," she said of Thomas. "They want to be vigilant to protect the legacy of the movement, and they see Thomas as someone who benefited in it and is in a unique position to defend it, but are upset it's not happening."
Kelley said Thomas has responded to the criticism in a unique way, trying to engage the black community instead of turning his back on it. Indeed, Thomas on Wednesday criticized those who believe that "race should still determine one person's ideas and ideologies."
Thomas also has drawn attention recently because of his wife Virginia's ties to the tea party movement, which some have called extremist. Some Democrats have called for Thomas to sit out the expected high court fight over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul because of his wife's public criticism of it.
"His wife is part of the tea party movement, which only adds fuel to the fire," Kendrick said. Still, the Augusta businessman decided to show up at the Wednesday event, deciding that honoring Ruffin, a longtime friend, was more important than protesting the justice's appearance.
"This is much bigger than Clarence Thomas, and that needs to be celebrated."