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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea