Silent But Deadly

Clarence ThomasThe Associated Press reports Clarence Thomas’s ongoing and unchallenged record of judicial mime. From that piece:

Two years and 142 cases have passed since Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last spoke up at oral arguments. It is a period of unbroken silence that contrasts with the rest of the court’s unceasing inquiries.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says he’d like to be known as the “listening justice.”

Hardly a case goes by without eight justices peppering lawyers with questions. Oral arguments offer justices the chance to resolve nagging doubts about a case, probe its weaknesses or make a point to their colleagues.

Left, right and center, the justices ask and they ask and they ask. Sometimes they debate each other, leaving the lawyer at the podium helpless to jump in. “I think you’re handling these questions very well,” Chief Justice John Roberts quipped to a lawyer recently in the midst of one such exchange.

Leaning back in his leather chair, often looking up at the ceiling, Thomas takes it all in, but he never joins in.

It isn’t the first time those covering Thomas have observed this. reviewer Elaine Cassel notes in a review of Andrew Peyton Thomas’s (no relation) 2001 Clarence Thomas: A Biography:

[Justice] Thomas contends that the role of the justice is to listen, not to ask questions, and that everything he needs to know is in the briefs. But even Peyton Thomas, an admirer of the Justice, concedes that Thomas’ rationales for his failure to question litigants “crumble” under scrutiny and that the Justice makes no effort to hide his boredom.

In May 2007, the AP’s Mark Sherman of the AP provided this stat:

Thomas has spoken 281 words since court transcripts began identifying justices by name in October 2004. By contrast, Thomas’ neighbor on the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer, has uttered nearly 35,000 words since January.

Many who’ve attempted to speak with Thomas off the bench know that mums the word there, too. Cassel points out that Thomas refused to cooperate with Peyton Thomas, and obstructed the writer’s attempts to speak with others about him .

Indeed, a friend is quoted as saying that to remain friends with Thomas necessitates not talking about him.

(Biographers in the years since Peyton Thomas—for example, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas‘s Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher—have received just as cold a shoulder from the judge.) Ultimately, Cassel says, Thomas’s obstinance undermines the book:

In the biography, the Thomas we meet is the Thomas who refuses to speak with the press, and who disdains personal appearances and speechmaking (except those involving schoolchildren and arch-conservative organizations). … There is something jarring – some might even say dishonest or hypocritical – about a public figure who complains as bitterly as Thomas that he is misunderstood, while at the same time refusing well-meaning attempts like those of this largely sympathetic biographer to understand him.

Also, great piece on this, “Clarence Thomas’s Case for Shutting Up,” in The New York Times‘ blog, The Lede.

Finally, a related-semi-unrelated: I found it fascinating that, when Thomas’s own book, My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, appeared late last year, all the interviewers speaking with appeared to be white.

I’m sure I’m wrong, and that a number of media sent Black reporters, or that he sat down to interviews with some. Indeed, I certainly only saw a few interviews with him. But those asking the questions were white in all of them.

So? This might have been a case of media orgs sending out their best and/or most experienced [white] reporters, as opposed to image-caressing preselection by Thomas and/or his publishers, right?

What I know is that, listening to the interviews with both C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb and 60 Minutes‘s Steve Kroft, for example, both lacked the kinds of questions that white reporters might back off asking for fear of appearing insensitive, out of their league, or even racist, but that a good Black reporter would have nailed. Too much stuff Thomas said required a follow-up, or the withering “What a bunch of crap” that a certian kind of Black reporter could have known to deliver, based on relatively common experience.

The results, then, were an impoverished kind of access to this important, apparently troubled man. Add to this his refusal to render written opinions, to ask the kinds of questions that give insight into his thinking, and decisions that fall far to the right, without fail. Sadly, we have, in the person of Thomas, a void; a huge hole in the history of the judicial record; a cipher—an invisible man, if you will.


1 comment so far ↓

#1 Zei on 02.27.08 at 1:58 pm

Thomas is a disgrace and he sickens me.

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