Clarence Thomas is a remarkable individual. He was born into creole speaking community in Georgia and raised in poverty by a poor single mother. Yet he rose to become chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then only the second African American ever to sit on the US Supreme Court. He also stands out for being that rarest of breeds in American politics: a black conservative. In fact, by most reckonings he is the Court’s most conservative member.
He’s also remarkable for not saying a great deal. As Jeffrey Tobin of the New Yorker – a persistent critic of Thomas – explains:
As of this Saturday, February 22nd, eight years will have passed since the last time Clarence Thomas asked a question at a Supreme Court oral argument
The Court’s arguments are not televised (though they should be), but they are public. They are, in fact, the public’s only windows to the Justices’ thought processes, and they offer the litigants and their lawyers their only chance to look these arbiters in the eye and make their case. There’s a reason the phrase “your day in court” resonates. It is an indispensable part of the legal system. But the process only works if the Justices engage. The current Supreme Court is almost too ready to do so, and sometimes lawyers have a hard time getting a word in edgewise. In question-and-answer sessions at law schools, Thomas has said that his colleagues talk too much, that he wants to let the lawyers say their piece, and that the briefs tell him all he needs to know. But this—as his colleagues’ ability to provoke revealing exchanges demonstrates—is nonsense. Thomas is simply not doing his job.
In fact, Tobin notes that there are two justices – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – who have never heard Thomas take part in a hearing.