Justice Thomas breaks 10-year silence to quiz attorney

Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court’s notoriously quiet member, asked his first question in a decade during oral arguments on Monday for a case dealing with gun rights – a case that’s also historical in that it’s the first high-court hearing to go forth after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

His questions rocked social media.

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As Kimberly Robinson, a Supreme Court reporter for Bloomberg wrote on Twitter: “Thomas asked several questions today at #SCOTUS in gun rights case.”

The justice broke his long-running self-imposed silence during the oral argument phase of Supreme Court cases just as the trial at hand was due to end early. One of the attorneys said, “If there are no more questions,” and made preparations to wrap, and that’s when Thomas spoke, the news outlet said.

The case dealt with a ban on gun ownership for those convicted of domestic violence.

“Thomas asked if any other constitutional right could be suspended based on a misdemeanor,” Robinson tweeted in a followup message.

She tweeted again: “I lost count after 7 questions. These are Thomas’ first questions during oral argument in more than 10 years.”

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And curiously enough, Robinson also tweeted this reaction from Thomas’s colleagues: “None of the other justices seemed surprised.”

The hearing is the first the court’s held since Scalia was found dead during a visit to a Texas ranch resort. As Business Insider reported, “that day also marked 10 years since Thomas had asked a question from the bench.”

Thomas, in a decade, has actually only spoken once from the bench in that 10-year period, and it was to make a joke about Yale in 2013, Business Insider reported.

Why so silent?

Thomas said during a speech in 2012 he didn’t see where questions from the bench “advances anything,” the news outlet said.

“Maybe it’s the Southerner in me,” he went on then. “Maybe it’s the introvert in me. I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”

Thomas has also said in the past he would do away with the oral argument part of the Supreme Court if he could.

His silence stood in direct contrast to Scalia’s more lively and energetic approach to his position.

Carter Phillips, an attorney who’s argued frequently before the Supreme Court, said of Scalia in an email to Business Insider shortly after the justice’s body was discovered: “Oral argument … changed completely after [Scalia] went on the bench. … Prior to him, the normal argument might generate 10-to-15 questions in 30 minutes. Sometimes even fewer. [Scalia] would ask 10-15 questions by himself.”


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