Justice Thomas Celebrates 5th Year of His Right to Remain Silent
Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment. ~Henry David Thoreau
If you ever have the opportunity to sit in on a Supreme Court argument, you may only hear the sound of crickets coming from Justice Clarence Thomas. If my calculations are correct, February 22nd marked a milestone for the silent justice. That prolific date marks the fifth anniversary of when Thomas last opened his mouth for oral arguments. It was February 22, 2006 during Holmes v. South Carolina.
Nature has given to men one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak. - Epictetus
No fan of the talkies, the justice's "keep your mouth shut" mentality is nothing new. It was actually once the norm as lawyers were given the opportunity to argue cases for hours. 19th century orator Daniel Webster would argue cases for days on end. Today, Supreme Court arguments tend to be a question and answer inquisition with socratic justices interrupting attorneys with precedent, personal thoughts and hypotheticals.
Silence is a fence around wisdom. ~German Proverb
A study done by the University of Minnesota's Professor Tim Johnson revealed that in approximately forty years no other justice has failed to speak at least once during a 12 month term. Well, no one but Thomas. He is going on year five now.He is famously quoted as saying "one thing I've demonstrated often in 16 years is that you can do this job without asking a single question." If only marriage was as easy.
If Justice Thomas is not asking questions because he has already made up his mind, what is the point of oral argument? In addition to written briefs, oral arguments are there to allow the justices to ask questions in order to better comprehend their cases. To quote Justice John Harlan " oral argument gives an opportunity for interchange between court and counsel which the briefs do not give. For my part, there is no substitute, even within the time limits afforded by the busy calendars of modern appellate courts, for the Socratic method of procedure in getting at the real heart of an issue and in finding out where the truth lies." In my opinion, Thomas needs to be a little more Socrates and a little less Marcel Marceau. Then again, maybe we really don't want to hear what he has to say.