Justice Clarence Thomas breaks decade-long silence Monday

For the first time in a decade, Clarence Thomas — arguably the Supreme Court’s most conservative Justice — asked a question during oral arguments in the Court Chamber at Washington, D.C.

In only the second week of hearings since Justice Scalia’s passing, the Supreme Court started its work-week Monday listening to arguments on a case which challenges a federal law prohibiting individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes from obtaining a gun license.

Toward the end of the session, Thomas inquired of the Justice Department’s Assistant Solicitor General about examples of other statutes which trigger the suspension of a constitutional right if a law is broken.

“This is a misdemeanor violation,” Thomas said. “It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”

The case involves two individuals from Maine who were convicted of assault charges and subsequently barred from owning firearms.

The last time the Supreme Court’s second black Justice asked a question during oral argument was February 22, 2006. Justice Thomas has commented in the past that he uses briefs provided by litigants to make a legal decision, therefore making questions during oral sessions unnecessary.

In 2007, Thomas expanded on the reasons for his lack of verbal inquiry. “Justice Marshall rarely asked questions during. Justice Powell rarely asked questions,” he said on CBS’ 60 Minutes. “That’s a personal preference. I certainly wouldn’t do it to provide histrionics for the media gallery or for other people or for critics.”

It may be no coincidence that Thomas broke his silence on the fourth day of hearings without the late-Justice Scalia.

“No one was more ideologically aligned with Justice Scalia then Justice Thomas, who . . . believes his colleagues already do more than enough talking,” offered legal scholar and CNN contributor Stephen Vladeck. “That he’s now asking questions . . . is as powerful evidence of the impact of Justice Scalia’s absence as anything we’ve seen from the Justices thus far.”

With the Court’s ideological makeup now split evenly, four to four, expect Justice Thomas to be more vocal in the years to come during oral argument.

 

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