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Clarence Thomas Speaks: After A Decade, Questions From The Quiet Justice

Clarence Thomas has given speeches or interviews from time to time, but had not asked a question during oral arguments for 10 years.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Clarence Thomas has given speeches or interviews from time to time, but had not asked a question during oral arguments for 10 years.

Washington was actually talking about someone other than Donald Trump on Monday, and that someone was not another presidential candidate. It was Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.

People were talking about Thomas because Thomas was talking. In the Supreme Court chamber, during oral arguments, the 67-year-old Thomas asked multiple questions. There might seem to be nothing out of the ordinary in that, except that Thomas had gone since February 2006 hearing hundreds of oral arguments without asking a single question.

Thomas has not been entirely silent all these years. He has occasionally read a decision or a dissent from the bench, and he cracked a joke in open court that was widely noted in 2013.

He is known to give speeches or interviews from time to time. He read a passage from the Book of Romans at the funeral of his friend, ally and fellow Justice Antonin Scalia nine days ago.

But he has not taken part in the oral arguments that are a feature of the court's handling of important cases.

Thomas actually passed the 10-year mark of silence during oral arguments earlier in the month. But that moment was largely overlooked amid the coverage and controversy surrounding Scalia's death.

There was no apparent link between Scalia's sudden death and Thomas' renewed interest in questioning attorneys before the court. But Scalia had been known for reviving the tradition of a lively and sharp-edged dialogue with attorneys presenting their oral arguments.

Scalia, and other justices in turn, had taken to interrupting the presenters, pitching difficult questions and challenging the reasoning behind the responses. Thomas had not joined in these exchanges until today. And by doing so today, with not one but a series of nine inquiries, he naturally provoked speculation.

The case that brought him into the verbal fray involved the interpretation of a law addressing domestic violence. The law bars someone found guilty of spousal abuse from owning a gun. Thomas said that appeared to suspend an individual's rights under the Second Amendment, a portion of the Constitution that has been a special interest for him for years.

Thomas has been on the high court since President George H.W. Bush appointed him to fill the seat of Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1991. Marshall and Thomas are the only two African-Americans to serve on the nation's highest court.

Thomas was confirmed by the Senate after two sets of closely watched hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The second round of hearings was prompted by allegations of sexual harassment by a former colleague named Anita Hill. The full Senate's confirmation vote was 52-48, and the controversy became part of the 1992 campaign for president and for seats in the Senate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.