Justice Clarence Thomas’s Silence Makes Headlines, But Does He Have the Right Idea?
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently made headlines when he spoke during oral arguments. While this may not seem like news, it was the first time that the justice had spoken from the bench in nearly seven years.
Even though the four words he uttered had no direct bearing on the case, but rather appeared to be a joke about Yale Law School, much has been made about Thomas’s comments and his overall preference for keeping quiet. While no one has outwardly criticized Thomas for his lack of questions or commentary during oral arguments, the overall impression is that Thomas is an outlier amongst his peers, who generally pepper attorneys appearing before the Court with any number of questions.
While each Supreme Court justice arguably has his or her own style for conducting oral arguments, Justice Thomas may be on to something with his preference for listening over talking. In fact, Thomas has been rather outspoken about judges asking too many questions. At a 2007 event, he even remarked, “My colleagues should shut up!”
As he explained further, “Suppose you’re undergoing something very serious like surgery and the doctors started a practice of conducting seminars while in the operating room, debating each other about certain procedures and whether or not this procedure is this way or that way. You really didn’t go in there to have a debate about gallbladder surgery. You actually went in to have a procedure done. We are judges. This is the last court in a long line in our system. We are there to decide cases, not to engage in seminar discussions. Now, each of us has a different way of thinking about things. Some people like to talk it out. Some people enjoy the questioning and the back and forth. Some people think that if they listen deeply and hear the people who are presenting their arguments, they might hear something that’s not already in several hundred pages of records.”
As Justice Thomas highlights, the importance of listening skills is often overlooked. With this in mind, his makes a good case that his silence should be emulated rather than questioned.