Supreme Court justice defends his five-year vow of silence

As Justice Clarence Thomas approaches the 20th anniversary in October of his ascent to the US Supreme Court after fending off the still famous sexual harassment charges from Anita Hill, he finds himself under fire for a different milestone in his controversial career: five years of staying mum.

It might serve Justice Thomas well to break into song or perhaps a one-man poetry jam when the Court resumes its winter session to ponder new intractable cases and deliver weighty verdicts next Tuesday. That's because it will also be the fifth anniversary of his having not spoken a word during oral arguments.

Each year that passes with Thomas still keeping his counsel while his colleagues routinely interrupt anxious lawyers with questions and demands for clarification, brings fresh media comment. This time the New York Times that has given the puzzle of his monkish restraint front-page treatment.

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

For Justice Thomas, the questions about his non-loquacious style on the bench – he is said to be chatty in private – may be a minor irritation. He has answered them in various ways in the past. One explanation is that he grew up speaking Geechee, an obscure patois of the coastline of Georgia, and even now finds public speaking intimidating. The other is that the eight other justices talk far too much as it is.

The anniversary comes, meanwhile, just as another tempest is breaking around him concerning his wife, Virginia Thomas, and revelations of her ties to groups committed to undoing the recently passed healthcare reform laws just as a case on the constitutionality of those reforms are heading towards the Court and her husband.

"My colleagues should shut up," Justice Thomas once told a conference when asked about why he remained silent during oral arguments; it may have been a joke, of course. Quizzed on the topic on another occasion by C-Span television, he said: "I would like to... be referred to as the 'listening justice'. I still believe that, if somebody else is talking, somebody should be listening."

The contrast with his colleagues is certainly stark. Records show that over a 20-year period ending in 2003, the Justices together averaged no fewer than 133 questions per hour while lawyers made their pitches. Among the most probing is Antonin Scalia.

Those questions are pored over by court observers and lawyers for clues as to which way each justice might be bending on a case. That Justice Thomas stays schtum always does not render the Court especially opaque, however, because like Scalia, he is conservative in his legal and political instincts.

It is the conservativism of his lobbyist wife, however, that is giving some liberals pause. Justice Thomas drew criticism for only belatedly revealing in his income disclosure statements that she had earned $700,000 (£436,480) from the Heritage Foundation, which is committed to killing the healthcare reforms. She in the meantime recently set up a new lobbying firm with the Tea Party identified as a charter client.

Last week 74 Democratic congressmen wrote a letter to Justice Thomas asking that he recuse himself, if, as seems likely, the Court is asked eventually to rule on whether the so-called Obamacare reforms violate the constitution and should be repealed in part or in their entirety. "The line between your impartiality and you and your wife's financial stake in the overturn of healthcare reform is blurred," they contended.

The Weird world of justices

* Justice William Cushing is the only judge to have worn a white wig to the Supreme Court, at its first session in 1790. President-to-be Thomas Jefferson told him to discard the wig, saying it made "English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum".

* Chief Justice William Howard Taft Taft is the only person to have held the post of President and Chief Justice of the United States. In his latter role, he also became the only former President to have sworn-in subsequent Presidents.

* Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase Chase is the only justice to appear on American currency. He served between 1864 and1873 and appeared on the now obsolete $10,000 bill.* Justice Anthony KennedyThis month, he became the only Supreme Court Justice to preside over a mock trial of Shakespeare's fictional protagonist Hamlet, to determine if he was sane when he stabbed Polonius.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser