Justice Thomas’ 5 Years of Silence from the Bench

Official portrait of Supreme Court Justice Cla...

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One week from Tuesday, it will have been five years since Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken during a Supreme Court argument. His last question from the bench was February 22, 2006.

As the New York Times reports, no other Justice has gone a single term without speaking once during oral arguments. Justice Thomas has remained silent for five terms.

Justice Thomas has given several reasons for his silence. Frankly, they’re all unsatisfactory.

He has said that he is self-conscious about the dialect with which he speaks. He has complained about the difficulty he has getting a word in edgewise, as the current court is the most talkative bench to date. He has said he finds the courtroom distressing. (Isn’t he in the wrong profession, then?) He has also said he remains silent out of courtesy: “If I invite you to argue your case, I should at least listen to you,” he once said.

Still, since his job is to listen, understand the litigants’ points as well as possible, and analyze their answers to his questions, wouldn’t it be a good idea to ask those questions? Keep in mind that when he hears a case, he has already read both lawyers’ briefs. If the Justices do not ask lawyers questions during oral argument, the litigants will merely repeat the arguments in their briefs aloud.

Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that Justice Thomas never speaks from the bench. He does, when it’s his turn to read majority opinions. He reads from a prepared statement, and he takes no pains to explain the legalese to the courtroom, as his colleagues do.

Justice Thomas does, however, often address in his opinions and dissents issues that did not arise during oral argument. If these are the issues he finds important, he should raise them during oral argument!

I know I’m not alone in my opinion that Justice Thomas is a waste of a Supreme Court seat. I just wish he would acknowledge his apathy for his profession and resign. I’m sure he can get by on his wife’s lobbying salary, right?

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