February 22, 2010 marked the fourth consecutive year since U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas asked any questions of any lawyer arguing either side of any issue during oral presentations of cases to the court.
Some observers think Justice Thomas’ silence offers relief from the often self-serving, time-wasting questions put by his colleagues. Maybe so, but Justice Thomas seems to believe that the oral argument process has little or no impact on any eventual decision. Again maybe so, certainly for Justice Thomas, since he admittedly often decides cases before hearing the lawyers personally argue them. But even so, surely we need this relatively rare opportunity to better understand the justices themselves — their respective intellects, personalities, temperaments, attitudes, in short, their humanity. Reading their autobiographies or other writings about them, or hearing their occasional speeches does not provide the same insights as witnessing the Justices themselves actually dealing with the issues they must decide.
I find Justice Thomas’ unwillingness to participate in open court almost as unacceptable as his nomination. President George H.W. Bush, commenting on whether he considered an African-American as a requirement to replace the retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, said that he chose Judge Thomas not because of race, but as the most qualified person to join the court. That was as ridiculous as a Supreme Court Justice who refuses to engage in any dialog with those appearing before the court. Justice Thomas’ muteness during public sessions of the court surely seems arrogant, which is not surprising considering the disdain he shows the poor and disadvantaged in many of his opinions.
Maybe the less we hear from Justice Thomas, the better.