U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke his silence for the first time in 10 years today, asking a question and shocking the assembled audience in the Supreme Court chambers. The case before the eight-justice court – still down a justice since Antonin Scalia’s death – would determine whether or not individuals convicted of domestic violence offenses would be allowed to own firearms.
“One question, can you give me another example where a misdemeanor suspends a constitutional right permanently?” asked Clarence Thomas, engaging with attorney Ilana Eisenstein in a back-and-forth discussion.
Justice Clarence Thomas continued to shock the audience in the Supreme Court chamber by not only asking a question, but asking several follow-ups. Supreme Court observers note that Thomas may find himself in a difficult position on the court, given that the conservative judge finds himself in a nearly evenly split court – with four generally liberal justices and four generally conservative justices. Antonin Scalia’s death may make the long-time silence justice a more active part of the court in the months ahead.
“You’re saying that a misdemeanor conviction results in a lifelong ban on possessing a gun, which at least right now is a constitutional right. In these cases, did any of the petitioners use a weapon?” Thomas pointedly asked.
Ilana Eisenstein, the attorney representing the federal government and the law in question, which would prohibit individuals convicted of domestic violence, even misdemeanors, from owning firearms out of fear that they may escalate the domestic violence against their spouse and/or children if they were allowed to own a gun.
“No,” Eisenstein replied, “they did not [use a gun in the original crime].”
“So it is not directly related,” Clarence Thomas concluded, illustrating his point to the court and the assembled audience.
Justice Clarence Thomas has become infamous in recent years for two aspects of his legal career. One, the sexual harassment scandal involving former co-worker Anita Hill, and two, his trademark silence. Other than a joke about Yale law graduates, the questions he posed today mark the first time Clarence Thomas has spoken in the Supreme Court chambers in nearly two decades.
Justice Thomas continued his discussion with attorney Ilana Eisenstein today, wrapping up his point with a hypothetical: If an individual was convicted of a misdemeanor, would the federal government have the right to prohibit that individual from ever, say, publishing again – comparing the issue at hand, Second Amendment rights, to First Amendment rights.
Eisenstein replied that those who commit domestic violence are more statistically likely to use a firearm against a domestic partner.
Clarence Thomas’ voice is so unfamiliar to court observers that the sound of it filling the courtroom reportedly elicited gasps from the audience. With just 10 minutes left in the hourlong session, Thomas jumped into the fray to match wits with Eisenstein and pose a series of hypotheticals that contrast and contradict the argument before the court.
The Chicago Tribune suggests that Clarence Thomas may be attempting to take up the mantle of his departed friend and fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death left not only an empty seat on the bench but a vacant role on the court. Scalia was known for his sometimes fiery rhetoric, for leaping into the fray from the bench, and arguing back and forth with attorneys and his fellow justices.
Whatever the reason behind Clarence Thomas’ recent eagerness to become a more active Justice, his questions were met with support from both sides of the ideological spectrum, who agree that liberal or conservative, Clarence Thomas taking a more active role in the court only better serves the Supreme Court as a whole. Thomas has, in the past, been criticized for being a ‘sleeper’ justice, his lack of active questioning often mistaken for a lack of interest.
Today, though, he proved naysayers wrong with his lively back-and-forth, a surprise for attorney Ilana Eisenstein, but no doubt a welcome one – even if they appear to be on opposite sides of this issue.
[Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]