Come Tuesday, Clarence Thomas will have passed five years on the Supreme Court without asking a question or offering his opinion during oral arguments. That’s unusual. According to the New York Times, “in the 20 years that ended in 2008,* the justices asked an average of 133 questions per hourlong argument, up from about 100 in the 15 years before that.” Antonin Scalia has been known to interrupt petitioners to read aloud from Garfield. Yet Thomas, described as “gregarious” in his personal life, has not spoken from the bench—except to read prepared statements of majority opinion—since 2006. In addition to pointing out the fundamental inadequacies of the nickname “Silent Clar,” such long reticence begs a question: why?
According to Thomas himself, it’s because he has a funny voice. Seriously. In his memoir, he recalls being teased about his rural Georgia accent and says he never asked questions during law school classes. One would think Thomas might let go of certain childhood anxieties after becoming a justice of the Supreme Court but, as a black man married to a white woman named “Virginia,” he probably learned early that certain people don’t give a crap what you’ve accomplished.
Thomas also seems to find a certain degree of, uh, tedium in his office. The Times article describes his manner in court as “leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his eyes, whispering to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored.” To hear Thomas tell it, this whole Supreme Court thing can be more trouble than it’s worth. “I tend to be morose sometimes,” the Times quotes him as saying to the winners of a high school essay contest in 2009. “There are some cases that will drive you to your knees.”
Then he added, “no homo,” before winking and asking if anyone wanted a Coke. This brings us to another possibility, which is that someone once told Clarence Thomas to try keeping his mouth shut. He became famous at almost the exact same moment he became famously accused of sexual harassment, and to this day his name is linked with Anita Hill’s in the popular consciousness, albeit maybe not with perfect recall.
Thomas was confirmed by the Senate in a narrow 52-48 vote. Presumably, that required some deal-making, and the makers of said deals likely made it clear that, even if it seemed totally funny and relevant to the topic at hand, Thomas would be expected not to talk about his dick and animal pornography from the Supreme Court. As a man who withstood a powerful challenge to his confirmation with the support of powerful friends, Thomas just may have been told to shut up and vote.
That’s an ugly idea that has been borne out by certain events. For example, Thomas happened to sit on the Court that called the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush, who happened to be the son of the President who appointed him. His wife, in addition to saying crazy shit to Anita Hill’s answering machine, has broken with tradition by being publicly active in conservative causes. And then there’s Monday’s news that Thomas may have lied about the extent of his participation in a “retreat for wealthy conservatives” three years ago.
The revelation that the Federalist Society reimbursed Thomas for his “brief drop-by” at the Koch brothers’ event in Palm Springs by paying for four days of transportation, meals and accommodations suggests two equally unpleasant possibilities. Either a prominent conservative legal group reimbursed Thomas for a bunch of money he didn’t spend, or the Supreme Court justice spent four days at a retreat for wealthy conservatives.
Neither scenario speaks well of Thomas’s juridical objectivity. The cause remains unclear, but the effect is that we have a Supreme Court justice who is at least indirectly connected to conservative political activism, almost always votes conservative, and never participates in arguments. Maybe it’s because he’s embarrassed about his voice and wants to give his petitioners the respectful audience they deserve. Or maybe it’s because he’s already made up his mind.