Clarence Thomas Is the Silent Justice

Sometimes silence isn’t golden.

Posted: 02/14/2011 01:43 PM EST
Clarence Thomas

It has been a quiet five years for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Over that time period, Thomas, an ultraconservative appointed by former President George H. W. Bush, hasn’t uttered a word during a court argument. This fact makes him the quietest justice the court has seen in the last 40 years, according to a recent New York Times article.

In comparison to the speaking habits of his colleagues, this dubious honor is particularly striking. Since October of 1998, Justice Antonin Scalia has spoken an average of 25 times per case; Justice John Roberts, 22; Justice Stephen Breyer, 19; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 18; the late Justice William Rehnquist, 14; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 14; retired Justice David Souter, 14; Justice John Paul Stevens, 12; Justice Anthony Kennedy, 12; retired Justice Sandra O’Connor, 11; Justice Samuel Alito, 6.

And Justice Thomas? Since 1998, he’s spoken an average of 0.03 times per case.

Is it shyness? Apathy? Or is Justice Thomas naturally just a quiet person of little words?

Over the years, he has addressed his notable silence on the bench here and there. After being teased for the way he spoke (he grew up in rural Georgia and had an accent), he was often intimidated by fellow law students and didn’t ask questions throughout law school, he reveals in his 2007 memoir My Grandfather’s Son.

He has admitted to being “morose” at times while doing his job. And in the past, he’s also lamented that, with such a loquacious and inquisitive bench, it’s hard for him to get a word in.

Still, from an outside observer, Justice Thomas’ behavior during arguments could be described as inattentive at best. As the Times article described, the 20-year vet often spends time during cases “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.”

It leaves one to wonder: If he isn’t going to ask any questions, shouldn’t he at least be paying attention?


Image:  Mark Wilson / Getty Images

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