Justice Clarence Thomas broke his ten-year silence on the bench Feb. 29.
In a case about when the federal government can restrict gun ownership for domestic violence offenders, Voisine v. United States, No. 14-10154, the justice asked whether there were any other constitutional rights that were abridged based on a misdemeanor.
Although the petition asked the justices to address the broad constitutional implications of such a law, the court refused to hear that question, instead limiting review to a narrow statutory interpretation question. Thomas interjected the question anyway.
His full-throated defense of the Second Amendment came as the government’s attorney was finishing up before her allotted time had expired.
“If there are no further questions,” she said.
Thomas had one, or rather several—Thomas asked the government lawyer almost a dozen questions over several minutes.
The case up until that point had been somewhat sleepy—both arguing attorneys seemed ready to finish early.
But the courtroom—or at least the press section near where I was sitting—electrified once we all figured out that, yes, Thomas was in fact asking a question!
A few moments after the back-and-forth with Thomas, several reporters who had been waiting for the next argument of the morning began filtering in. Murmurs and whispers in the otherwise silent courtroom could be heard after Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, “I suppose one answer is just a partial answer to Justice Thomas's question… .”
“Wait, Justice Thomas asked a question!?!”
But those reporters were too late. Thomas didn’t speak again.
Even though his questions came almost ten years to the day of the last time he asked a question—Feb. 22, 2006—none of the other justices seemed noticeably taken aback.
Maybe that’s because they are more familiar with the jovial, boisterous Thomas caught recently on TMZ than the stern, silent one that has taken the bench for the past decade.
It’s notable that Thomas’s questions came less than two weeks after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly.
Thomas has often defended his silence during oral argument by saying that he thinks the current court asks too many questions. Scalia, one of the most active questioners on the bench, and Thomas were like-minded. Perhaps Thomas felt he needed to speak up now that Scalia isn’t there to do so.
Read the transcript here. Thomas’s questions begin at page 35.
To stay on top of all the latest news from the Supreme Court, take a free trial to United States Law Week.
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