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A Supreme Court Justice Just Broke 10 Years of Silence

Clarence Thomas 2014Clarence Thomas 2014
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas at the University of Texas at Tyler Cowan Center Tuesday Sept. 16, 2014.Photograph by Herb Nygren Jr. — Tyler Morning Telegraph via AP Photo

Justice Clarence Thomas shocked the legal community by peppering a Justice Department lawyer with several questions during a Supreme Court hearing about gun control on Monday.

This comes as a major surprise because Thomas, unlike the other Supreme Court Justices, does not speak from the bench during arguments. The last time he asked a question was more than 10 years ago on February 22, 2006.

I was not in the courtroom, but a number of reliable legal reporters reported the event via Twitter.

Monday’s Supreme Court hearing concerns whether a law restricting firearm purchases by select people with misdemeanor convictions violates the Second Amendment and other sections of the U.S. Constitution.

For now, there is no transcript of Thomas’s questions, but it’s a good bet he expressed skepticism about the law given he is a staunch conservative and a strong Second Amendment defender. Update: The Huffington Post reports the initial question was:

“Can you give me an area [of law] where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”

Thomas also reportedly asked for an analogous situation in which a Constitutional right was suspended based on an unrelated crime.

It is also difficult not to link Thomas’s decision to speak up for the first time in a decade with the sudden death this month of Justice Antonin Scalia. The late judge was a towering conservative figure in the courtroom, and Thomas and Scalia regularly concurred on decisions.

There are various explanations for Thomas’s silence in court. As Adam Litpak of the New York Times has reported in the past, Thomas’s reticence may stem from past self-consciousness about getting teased about his regional Georgia dialect when he was young.

A simpler reason is that Thomas may feel it is more efficient to allow the lawyers to make their case, rather than interrupting them with a barrage of questions as some of his Supreme Court colleagues regularly do.

While Monday is the first time in a decade that Thomas posed a question in court, he has spoken on one occasion during that period. This occurred in 2013 when he made a brief remark poking fun at his alma mater, Yale Law School.