In a loud and loquacious world, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has earned a reputation for his silence.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Thomas almost never speaks. In fact, his statements during oral argument are so rare that, when he does ask a question or make a comment, it becomes news and is covered even on overseas websites like the BBC. That’s what happened this week, when Thomas made his first statement during an oral argument since February 22, 2006. In short, he hadn’t spoken at an oral argument for almost seven years. On Monday, his comment apparently was a joke about lawyers from different law schools that caused some of the other Justices to laugh.
Thomas doesn’t think he needs to ask questions during oral argument to do his job — and he’s right. He reads the briefs submitted by the parties, votes on whether cases should be accepted for review by the Court, writes majority opinions, concurrences, and dissents, handles the other duties of a Supreme Court Justice, has developed a very consistent (and very conservative) judicial philosophy . . . and gives an occasional speech, besides. The other Justices bombard the attorneys who argue before the Court with questions and, many legal scholars believe, pose the questions not to hear the answers, but rather to communicate with and attempt to persuade other members of the Court. Thomas thinks that lawyers should be able to present their arguments without constant interruptions, so he stays silent during oral argument. Who’s to say which approach is the right one?
I admire Justice Thomas for his willingness to buck the prevailing trend and follow his own approach. I also respect anyone who, in our texting, talking, e-mailing, communication-saturated culture, somehow manages to keep his own counsel.