Washington (CNN) - Justice Clarence Thomas reflected on his long journey from childhood poverty to service on the highest court in the land, telling a conservative audience Thursday, "I have this wonderful opportunity to go to work everyday– I didn't always feel that way."
A nostalgic and "grateful" Thomas sought to assure fellow lawyers and judges he is not the person longtime critics have tried to portray him: that he remains an angry, frustrated jurist, especially over the treatment he received during his bitter 1991 confirmation. But he admitted the road to his current contentment has not been easy.
"I never thought I'd be a judge," he told about 1,300 people at a dinner of the Federalist Society, a leading conservative legal group. "I never thought I would treasure my job, but I've reached that point in my life. Like the priesthood, this is what I was called to do."
The 65-year-old Thomas said he grew believing he would be a Catholic priest. But as a justice, he says the work remains vitally important, but that he does not take himself too seriously.
Asked by federal appeals court Judge Diane Sykes, who moderated the conversation, whether he followed press accounts about him– the court's most consistently conservative member said, "I don't try to read anything about what we do in the courtroom, because I was there. I don't read anything– that's hearsay," he said, displaying his characteristic hearty laugh.
Thomas admitted he is often the lone dissenter in some cases, and writing opinions that few of his colleagues join.
"I think while I may be on the losing side, I feel obligated to write what I think is right," Thomas said. He added that there is mutual respect among the nine justices, despite their ideological differences.
“It’s sort of ironic when I hear people try to tell me I am supposed to be overwhelmingly race conscious, that i have this sense of hatred, sort of an effort to get even, in my life. That's the opposite of the way I was raised."
He thanked his wife, Virginia, and Justice Antonin Scalia for helping him get past the confirmation and early rocky transition on the court. The only African-American justice currently on that bench faced tough questions at the time from senators, after being nominated to the high court by President George H.W. Bush. He denied sexually harassing a co-worker years earlier while serving as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Scalia and fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito attended the gala, along with several prominent federal judges and seven lawmakers, including Republicans Senators Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell.
The justices’ black-tie appearance was criticized by a Democratic member of Congress and two liberal advocacy groups, who have filed a formal complaint with the Supreme Court.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the Alliance for Justice and Common Cause said Thomas and Sykes were violating judicial ethics by appearing at the gala, which critics labeled a "fundraiser."
"Lending the prestige of judicial office to promote a fundraising event of this type is a clear violation of the ethical standards embodied in the Code of Conduct for U.S Judges," said the letter addressed to Chief Justice John Roberts, "which is binding on all federal judges except justices of the Supreme Court."
The court has not commented on the letter.
The Federalist Society denies this is a fundraiser, but does charge attendees up to $200 to attend the black-tie optional dinner. The event has been held annually for years, and about 17 other prominent federal judges are appearing at various other events during the three-day convention.