Clarence Thomas Brilliantly Breaks His Silent Streak

Thomas quietly receives an honorary degree from the the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Photograph by Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

A year ago, I asked Clarence Thomas about the pressure he felt to speak up when listening to oral arguments. Pressure? “I don’t feel any pressure,” the Supreme Court justice said. “When I have something to say, I’ll say it.”

On Jan. 14, Thomas finally said it: “Well—he did not—.” That barely audible phrase was followed by laughter, according to a court transcript (PDF), at which point an assistant district attorney from Louisiana named Carla Sigler said, “I would refute that, Justice Thomas.” Refute what, you ask? We might never know. What matters is that those four words have broken the most famous silent streak in SCOTUS history: It’s been almost seven years since Thomas asked a question during oral arguments. While that streak officially continues, Thomas now has spoken up during an oral argument.

Brilliant! Let the rest of the world debate what Thomas was talking about or whether his silent streak remains intact; the pressure is off. The clock is reset to zero as pundits are left to mull over the meaning of his muffled words. Was he making a joke at the expense of Yale Law School, his alma mater? Probably. Witnesses certainly say so. What’s clear is that this isn’t the bitter observation of a taciturn man who once felt so diminished by his Yale experience that he slapped a 15¢ price tag on his degree. Thomas was happily joking around.

That doesn’t exactly fit the script of the associate justice who has stayed silent all these years. In media coverage, Thomas is often portrayed as an isolated and disengaged member of the bench, a man who can look a little irritated and bored when listening to cases. He’s spoken in public about the futility of his colleagues who “badger” lawyers as they present a case, instead of simply listening to what’s being said. Rather than viewing questions as part of a probing effort to get at the truth, he sees such interference as rude and unhelpful.

Since he last asked a question on Feb. 22, 2006, reporters have marked each anniversary by updating the scorecard. Editorials called on him to speak. Pundits mused over why the justice chose to keep his mouth shut. Embarrassment over some imagined trace of his childhood Gullah language lingering in his accent? Anger at being cast as some blindly loyal sidekick to Justice Antonin Scalia? Thomas himself has been cryptic on the issue. When asked about his silence in court, he’d typically sweep away the question or talk of it as another issue manufactured by the media.

“A white person is free to think whatever they want to think, but a black person has to think a certain way,” he told me in early 2007. “Why do you think I get in so much controversy? People have a model of what they think a black person should think.”

Rightly or wrongly, that belief has left a stream of lawyers, journalists, and others wondering when Thomas would break his silence. What would move him to speak? It turns out, not much. Even if his record of not asking questions continues apace, the spell is broken.

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