As Justice Clarence Thomas approaches the 20th anniversary in October of his ascent to the US Supreme Court after fending off the still famous sexual harassment charges from Anita Hill, he finds himself under fire for a different milestone in his controversial career: five years of staying mum.
It might serve Justice Thomas well to break into song or perhaps a one-man poetry jam when the Court resumes its winter session to ponder new intractable cases and deliver weighty verdicts next Tuesday. That's because it will also be the fifth anniversary of his having not spoken a word during oral arguments.
Each year that passes with Thomas still keeping his counsel while his colleagues routinely interrupt anxious lawyers with questions and demands for clarification, brings fresh media comment. This time the New York Times that has given the puzzle of his monkish restraint front-page treatment.
"If he is true to form," the Times' reporter notes, "Justice Thomas will spend the arguments as he always does: leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his eyes, whispering to [his colleague] Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored. He will ask no questions."
For Justice Thomas, the questions about his non-loquacious style on the bench - he is said to be chatty in private - may be a minor irritation. He has answered them in various ways in the past. One explanation is that he grew up speaking Geechee, an obscure patois of the coastline of Georgia, and even now finds public speaking intimidating. The other is that the eight other justices talk far too much as it is.
The anniversary comes, meanwhile, just as another tempest is breaking around him concerning his wife, Virginia Thomas, and revelations of her ties to groups committed to undoing the recently passed healthcare reform laws just as a case on the constitutionality of those reforms are heading towards the Court and her husband.
"My colleagues should shut up," Justice Thomas once told a conference when asked about why he remained silent during oral arguments; it may have been a joke, of course. Quizzed on the topic on another occasion by C-Span television, he said: "I would like to... be referred to as the 'listening justice'. I still believe that, if somebody else is talking, somebody should be listening. …