Something highly unusual happened at the Supreme Court on Wednesday: Justice Clarence Thomas asked a question. The Hill reports that spectators were shocked when the notoriously silent justice asked a question—and a follow-up— during an argument on racial discrimination in jury selection. The court was hearing the case of Curtis Flowers, who was sentenced to death in his sixth trial for four 1996 murders in Mississippi. His lawyers say a prosecutor unjustly dismissed black jurors, but in his first question in three years, Thomas took the argument in a different direction and asked if Flowers' defense team had struck any jurors, the Washington Post reports. When attorney Sheri Lynn Johnson said they had, Thomas asked what race they were.
Flowers' attorney told Thomas that the jurors excluded had been white, but added that the question before the court was the motivation of prosecutor Doug Evans, not Flowers. Thomas last asked a question from the bench in 2016, and three years isn't that long an interval for him: Before the 2016 question, he had been silent for more than a decade. He has given different reasons over the years for his silence, once saying that he felt self-conscious because of his Georgia accent, but has more recently said that he doesn't ask questions out of "simple courtesy" to other justices, the New York Times reports. (Read more Clarence Thomas stories.)