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Clarence Thomas hits five years without asking a question

Justice Clarence Thomas hasn't asked a question during the Supreme Court's oral arguments for five years. He has said the sessions are unnecessary and maybe even a sideshow, but other justices do not agree.

February 22, 2011|By David G. Savage, Reporting from Washington
  • Justice Clarence Thomas poses with other justices during a group photograph in the Supreme Court building.
Justice Clarence Thomas poses with other justices during a group photograph… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Eight justices of the Supreme Court engaged in a fast-paced argument Tuesday morning over whether a female microbiologist who tried to poison her husband's lover with a toxic chemical could be charged under a federal law intended to regulate chemical weapons.

And one justice, as usual, said nothing during the argument. Tuesday marked five years since Justice Clarence Thomas last asked a question during the court's oral arguments.

Thomas speaks in the court only on the few occasions during the year when he is called upon to read a decision. Throughout his nearly 20 years on the bench, he has sat silently and watched as his colleagues quiz the lawyers on their cases.

When asked to explain his silence, Thomas has said the oral arguments are unnecessary to deciding the cases, and perhaps even a sideshow. The justices rely on the written briefs and the lower-court opinions in making their decisions, he says. He has also suggested that more of his colleagues should follow his example, rather than interrupt the lawyers who making their arguments.

"So why do you beat up on people if you already know? I don't beat up on them. I refuse to participate. I don't like it, so I don't do it," he told law students at the University of Alabama two years ago.

The other justices do not agree with him on the value of oral arguments. They said the back-and-forth exchanges with the lawyers give them an opportunity to clarify aspects of the case they find puzzling. Sometimes, they also use the arguments to throw out ideas to get the attention of their colleagues.

And on occasion, the justices say, the answers they hear during the oral arguments persuade them to change their decision in a case. Thomas, by contrast, indicates he has his mind made up prior to the argument.

Justice Antonin Scalia often asks 20 questions during an hourlong argument. On her first full day on the bench in October 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked more than 30 questions in a pair of cases, thereby eclipsing Thomas's career total in just one day.

Thomas' aversion to legal arguments goes beyond the courtroom. In his public appearances, Thomas usually steers clear of legal topics and controversies when speaking to students or lawyers. He usually charms audiences with his folksy, down-to-earth manner. He speaks of his devotion to the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team and his fondness for war movies. He says that when he is feeling down, he watches "Saving Private Ryan" in his den and is uplifted by the heroism of the troops who stormed the Normandy beaches.

His frequent topic is his personal life and his journey from a childhood of poverty in the South. When he was nominated to the high court in 1991, he repeated that he owed his success to his grandfather, who took him in when he was young. Four years ago, he published a memoir entitled "My Grandfather's Son" that again told of how his life was shaped by the influence of his grandfather.

During Tuesday's argument, Thomas looked to be paying close attention as the justices debated whether Carol Bond, the woman charged under the chemical weapons law, should be allowed to argue that this use of the law was unconstitutional.

A lower court in Philadelphia ruled that she did not have "standing" to make a type of states-rights claim, but all the justices who spoke appeared ready to reverse that decision and give Bond a new chance to argue she should have been charged with an assault under state law, not a major federal offense.

david.savage@latimes.com

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