WASHINGTON – Justice Clarence Thomas broke 10 years of silence and provoked audible gasps at the Supreme Court on Monday when he posed questions from the bench during an oral argument.
It was the second week the court has heard arguments since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas’ friend and fellow conservative, on Feb. 13.
Thomas’ questions came in a case in which the court is considering placing new limits on the reach of a federal law that bans people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns.
Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein was about to sit down after answering a barrage of questions from other justices. Thomas then caught her by surprise, asking whether the violation of any other law “suspends a constitutional right.”
Thomas’s silence over the years has become a curiosity. He has previously said he relies on the written briefs and doesn’t need to ask questions of the lawyers appearing in court.
Thomas last asked a question in court on Feb. 22, 2006. He has come under criticism from some who say he is neglecting his duties.
The justices were considering appeals from two Maine men who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership. The men say the law should only cover intentional acts of abuse and not those committed in the heat of an argument.
Most of the justices appeared to favor the government’s position that even reckless acts of domestic assault fall under the law.
But Thomas asked several questions about Second Amendment gun rights, a topic no other justice had asked about. He noted that the law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge to get a lifetime ban on possessing a gun, “which at least as of now results in suspension of a constitutional right.”