Clarence Thomas Breaks a Decade of Silence
Supreme Court justice hadn't asked a question from the bench since 2006
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 29, 2016 12:12 PM CST
In this Jan. 26, 2012, file photo, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.   (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

(Newser) – Clarence Thomas jolted a courtroom awake Monday during Supreme Court proceedings when he did something he hasn't done in more than 10 years: He asked a question, the AP reports. The usually reserved justice—whose long silence has been dubbed a "curiosity" and raised accusations of neglecting his duties, per CBS News—had court reporters sitting up straight and caused what Courthouse News Service calls an "audible shift" in the room when he suddenly started making inquiries. His questions came during a case in which the court weighs whether to walk back a federal ban on gun ownership for those convicted of domestic violence. "Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?" was Thomas' initial question, posed to a Justice Department lawyer after she presented arguments for the ban.

Thomas didn't quit there, also throwing out a question about whether the feds could shutter a publisher if it recklessly displayed kids in "compromising circumstances," per Courthouse News. It was his first question from the bench since Feb. 22, 2006—a silence Thomas has explained before by noting he's good to go with just written legal briefs and that he doesn't like to "badger" lawyers who only have a short time to present their arguments, CNN notes. "Everyone leaned in disbelieving," a Slate reporter in the courtroom tells CNN, which adds this was one of the first oral arguments the court has heard since Antonin Scalia—who had defended Thomas' reticence—died. "That he's now asking questions—for the first time in over a decade—is as powerful evidence of the impact of Justice Scalia's absence as anything we've seen from the justices thus far," an American University law professor says.