It’s been a week of changes for the United States Supreme Court. Last week saw the death of justice Antonin Scalia, and this week justice Clarence Thomas asked a question in court for the first time in just over ten years. The last time Thomas asked a question during a hearing was in 2006.
Some suggest that the reason Thomas spoke up now was to fill the enormous void left by Scalia, his close friend and mentor. Thomas surprised those in attendance last week when he leaned forward into the microphone to ask a series of questions about the Voisine v. United States case, a case which concerns whether a prior domestic assault conviction based on reckless conduct can qualify as a misdemeanor crime. Thomas specifically asked questions of Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein.
The Associated Press reported that Thomas “peppered Eisenstein with several questions about the Second Amendment gun rights, a topic no other justice had asked about. He noted that the law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge to get a lifetime ban on possessing a gun ‘which at least as of now results in suspension of a constitutional right.’”
Thomas’ history of silence has been troubling to some. A particularly pointed New Yorker piece about Thomas’ silence describes it as having gone “from curious to bizarre to downright embarrassing, for himself and for the institution he represents.” More, Thomas is himself described as “only reclin[ing]; his leather chair is pitched so that he can stare at the ceiling, which he does at length. He strokes his chin. His eyelids look heavy. Every schoolteacher knows this look. It’s called ‘not paying attention.’”
For his part, Thomas has provided a number of reasons for his silence. In the past he has indicated that he feels it’s rude and unnecessary to ask so many questions of the lawyers, suggesting that it’s more helpful to sit and listen to the arguments being made. “We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” Thomas said in 2013. Even Scalia, such as he was, noted often that it was not unusual for a justice not to ask questions. “Leave Clarence alone!” he joked.
It’s unclear if Thomas is likely to ask more questions or if he will fall back on his quiet nature. He may feel the need to ask more questions in Scalia’s absence, but he may not.