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Posted by on Feb 13, 2011 in Law | 0 comments

Clarence Thomas Hits 5 Year Anniversary of Supreme Court Silence

Here’s a first. Does the United States have a Supreme Court Justice who has taken a vow of public silence? It seems that way in the case of Clarence Thomas, who has not spoken out in court for five years, the York Times reports:

The anniversary will probably be observed in silence.

A week from Tuesday, when the Supreme Court returns from its midwinter break and hears arguments in two criminal cases, it will have been five years since Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken during a court argument.

If he is true to form, Justice Thomas will spend the arguments as he always does: leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his eyes, whispering to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored. He will ask no questions.

In the past 40 years, no other justice has gone an entire term, much less five, without speaking at least once during arguments, according to Timothy R. Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. Justice Thomas’s epic silence on the bench is just one part of his enigmatic and contradictory persona. He is guarded in public but gregarious in private. He avoids elite universities but speaks frequently to students at regional and religious schools. In those settings, he rarely dwells on legal topics but is happy to discuss a favorite movie, like “Saving Private Ryan.”

So he can talk but he’s a bit like the smart student in a college course who never opens his mouth unless he’s virtually ordered to but aces the course. And Thomas is vocal elsewhere:

He talks freely about the burdens of the job.

“I tend to be morose sometimes,” he told the winners of a high school essay contest in 2009. “There are some cases that will drive you to your knees.”

Justice Thomas has given various and shifting reasons for declining to participate in oral arguments, the court’s most public ceremony.

He has said, for instance, that he is self-conscious about the way he speaks. In his memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he wrote that he had been teased about the dialect he grew up speaking in rural Georgia. He never asked questions in college or law school, he wrote, and he was intimidated by some fellow students.

Elsewhere, he has said that he is silent out of simple courtesy.

“If I invite you to argue your case, I should at least listen to you,” he told a bar association in Richmond, Va., in 2000.

Justice Thomas has also complained about the difficulty of getting a word in edgewise.

Can’t get a word in edgewise? What does he mean? Joe Biden isn’t on the Supreme Court….

That Thomas hasn’t exactly been Justice Blabbermouth is not really news: a post on Daily Kos and Alternet in 2008 noted his silence. Here’s part of it:

The last time Justice Thomas asked a question in court was February 22, 2006 during a death penalty case out of South Carolina, but ever since then it’s been deafening silence on a plethora of cases that have been heard and dissected by the other Justices on the court, including “newbies” John Roberts and Samuel (Sc)Alito.

Not Thomas though. He’s been as silent on the bench as he was during his troubled confirmation amid allegations thrown at him by Anita Hill.

…….I am not an attorney, but what I don’t understand is how a judge, any judge, would be able to make an informed legal decision without asking questions.

Am I oversimplifying things? Am I making too much out of his silence? I think, and remember this is only MY opinion, his silence speaks volumes about him not… only as a Justice, but as a person as well. If you don’t ask questions, you may be misinterpreting something, or you might have heard something incorrectly. Asking questions helps clear things up and gives more insight into the situation at hand.

….I mean, I knew that Justice was blind, but I never knew that it was mute as well.

This could set a new precedent: perhaps mimes can now be considered for Supreme Court positions.

On the other hand, his wife seems to be making up for the gaps — setting up a conservative consulting firm whose new clients include the Heritage Foundation, which is opposing health care reform.

Will Clarence Thomas speak out on that? (Don’t hold your breath).

Will Clarence Thomas recuse himself on a health care reform appeal vote? (Don’t hold your breath.)

Just expect this: