Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke his ten-year silence on Monday, asking questions during oral arguments for the first time in a decade. The surprising move comes two weeks after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas’ closest conservative ally on the bench and the Justice with whom Thomas most frequently aligned when it came time to vote.
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The court is currently considering a case that would potentially reign in a federal law that places gun ownership limitations on people who are convicted of domestic violence charges. Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein had nearly finished arguing in favor of such restrictions when Thomas interjected, questioning the proposal on constitutional grounds.
“Ms. Eisenstein, one question,” Thomas said. “Can you give me – this is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”
Thomas pressed the line of questioning, asking whether a person convicted of a domestic violence charge that did not involve the use of a weapon should become the subject of an “indefinite ban” on gun ownership.
The rapid-fire questioning from Thomas marks a significant departure from his usual silence during oral arguments, which he previously claimed was possible because he absorbed all the necessary information from the written briefs. However, Thomas had come under fire from critics who believed that asking questions comprises a significant part of a Justice’s responsibilities, and by remaining silent, Thomas was shirking his duties.
Two Maine men who pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges brought the case against the government, arguing that they should not lose their constitutional rights. Whereas the court largely agreed that their actions still left them subject to a gun ban, Thomas was the only Justice to steer the conversation toward the Second Amendment.