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Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for more than 30 years. He was nominated by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and is the second African-American to serve on the high court, following Justice Thurgood Marshall.
CNN  — 

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas repeatedly pushed back on his critics during remarks Friday at a judicial conference in Alabama, lamenting what he described as the “nastiness” and “lies” directed at him and calling Washington a “hideous place.”

Asked whether his jurisprudence required a degree of courage, Thomas said he didn’t view himself as courageous – particularly when compared with servicemembers, and firefighters and people who defuse bombs. Thomas said he was simply doing his job.

“Being in Washington, you have to get used to particularly people who are reckless,” Thomas, a conservative and the court’s most senior associate justice, said. “They don’t bomb you, necessarily, but they bomb your reputation or your good name or your honor. And that’s not a crime but they can do as much harm that way.”

Speaking at the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals conference in Point Clear, Alabama, Thomas argued that it would be a disservice to those soldiers and first responders “not to sit at my desk and make decisions with a lifetime appointment that we know are the right decisions.”

Thomas, while not speaking directly to a series of reports about ethics that have plagued him for months, repeatedly returned to his critics without prompting from US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who moderated the discussion.

“My wife and I, the last two or three years, it’s been – just the nastiness and the lies – it’s just incredible,” Thomas said.

Thomas and his wife, Ginni, have been the target of a good deal of criticism in recent years. Several of Thomas’ critics, including Democratic members of Congress, have called on him to recuse himself from Supreme Court cases involving the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol because of his wife’s efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election in former President Donald Trump’s favor.

Ginni Thomas has acknowledged attending Trump’s rally before the Capitol attack. Justice Thomas has declined to recuse himself from cases this year involving the January 6 attack, including a blockbuster appeal regarding Trump’s claims of absolute immunity from criminal charges for his efforts to overturn the election results.

Thomas has also faced criticism for accepting private jet travel and posh vacations from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, first reported by ProPublica. In response to the blowback, Thomas updated his financial disclosure forms, and the Supreme Court adopted a code of conduct for the first time last year.

At one point on Friday, Thomas told a story about a walk he took with a friend before breaking off into an aside.

“That’s before they started attacking my friends,” Thomas said. “I hope I still have some.”

As he has in the past, Thomas also spared little criticism for Washington, DC.

“I think what you’re gonna find, and especially in Washington, [is] people pride themselves in being awful,” Thomas said one point.

The remark elicited laughter in the room, until Thomas continued.

“It is a hideous place, as far as I’m concerned,” Thomas said, noting that he liked to visit other places where people “don’t pride themselves in doing harmful things merely because they have the capacity to do it.”

Thomas, 75, also appeared to lament a loss of trust within the Supreme Court, telling the conference that the stunning leak of a draft abortion opinion in 2022 wouldn’t have happened when he joined the court in 1991. It wasn’t the first time Thomas has made those points – he once likened the leak to an “infidelity” – but his remarks Friday suggested the fallout from the leak of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade may still be top of mind.

“We may have been a dysfunctional family, but we were a family,” Thomas said of the court when he first joined in 1991. “It would be inconceivable that anyone would leak an opinion of the court or do anything to intentionally harm one another.”

Thomas also became the latest justice in recent weeks to raise concern with the Supreme Court’s applications docket, the process the court uses to handle emergency requests. That docket has come under fierce criticism in recent years, in part because the court often decides the requests on a short timeline, usually without oral argument and often with orders that do not indicate how the justices voted.

“I think there’s some concern about that among my colleagues – certainly with me – because it short circuits our process,” Thomas said. “The way that we’re doing it now, I think, is not a thorough way of dealing with very, very difficult issues.”

As he returned to his critics, Thomas suggested the lesson he had taken away from the last year of controversy was that he would not react with “nastiness for nastiness.”

“You have some choices. You don’t get to prevent people from doing horrible things or saying horrible things,” Thomas said.

But, he said, he had come to accept “the fact that they can’t change you unless you permit that.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.