The last time Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas actually said something – anything – from the bench, iPhones didn’t exist. The first “Iron Man” movie hadn’t been filmed. The war in Iraq was only three years old.
But yesterday, the far-right jurist whose reticence has become the stuff of legend, had a question towards the end of an oral argument in a relatively obscure case. It was the first time Thomas had spoken out loud from the bench in 10 years.
I have it on good authority that some of the reporters who were on hand for yesterday’s proceedings were so taken aback by Thomas’ interjection that they used language that wouldn’t be appropriate for a family blog.
But while the novelty of Thomas saying something out loud is itself noteworthy, let’s not ignore the substance. What exactly did the justice ask? Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern took a closer look:
If you looked closely enough, Voisine v. United States was always a gun case. Although it came to the Supreme Court wrapped in the technical language of criminal intent, Voisine still had the Second Amendment at its heart. The justices tried to shear off the constitutional question when they agreed to hear the case, refusing to consider whether a federal law barring domestic abusers from owning guns could violate their right “to keep and bear arms.”But toward the end of arguments on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas broke his decade-long silence on the bench to speak up for gun rights.
This gets a little complicated – Supreme Court cases usually do – but at its root, the case has to do with the “Lautenberg Amendment,” a 1996 policy crafted by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to limit domestic abusers’ access to firearms.
And in the case before the court yesterday, Thomas, true to form, spoke up to ask a pointed question that expresses skepticism about the Lautenberg measure. Or put another way, the conservative jurist broke 10 years of silence in order to defend convicted abusers’ constitutional right to gun ownership.
As for why Thomas says so little, court watchers have a variety of explanations, though many have come to believe the justice has no appetite for the kind of dramatic in-court confrontations the late Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to relish. As the argument goes, Thomas kept quiet in part because Scalia dominated – and Thomas found little room to maneuver, rhetorically.
With Scalia’s recent passing, it’s entirely possible that Thomas’ voice will, literally and figuratively, take on new relevance.
Clarification: It appears that in 2013, Thomas briefly uttered part of a sentence, which was apparently a joke. I think the larger point about the justice’s relative silence remains the same.