U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) Justice Clarence Thomas has broken his decade-long silence on the bench. The justice posed his first question since 2006 during oral arguments for a federal law that forbids citizens convicted of domestic assault from owning a firearm.
Thomas, a conservative-leaning justice, has been renowned for his silence. He had not asked a question during arguments since Feb. 22, 2006, according to CBS News.
His only remarks in court in the past ten years was when he joked that just because a person attended an Ivy League college did not necessarily make them qualified lawyer.
Thomas has been criticized as a disengaged justice, declining to ask probing questions during important debates. In 2007, Justice Thomas defended his silence, stating that his wordless performance was a product of his personality.
“That’s a personal preference,” Thomas said of his refusal to ask questions. “I certainly wouldn’t do it to provide histrionics for the media gallery or for other people or for critics.”
In 2012, the justice elaborated on his disinterest in asking questions during a speech in North Carolina. He stated that there would not even be oral arguments for cases if it were up to him, according to Business Insider.
“I don’t see where that advances anything,” Thomas said. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”
Justice Thomas finally broke his silence on Feb. 29, asking Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein about the constitutionality of stripping domestic abusers of their right to a firearm, according to USA Today.
“This is a misdemeanor violation,” Thomas asked. “It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”
The justice proceeded to ask Eisenstein 9 questions, trying to determine if there was any precedent for taking away a constitutional right for a misdemeanor charge.
While Thomas’ line of questioning was surprising given his decade of silence, the empty seat beside him spoke volumes.
On Feb. 13, Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. He and Thomas were close both as friends and ideologically.
According to lawyer Carter Phillips, who holds the record for most cases argued before SCOTUS, Scalia “would ask 10-15 questions by himself.”