A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

Room For Debate
Does Clarence Thomas’s Silence Matter?

Can a Supreme Court justice effectively perform his duties without participating in oral arguments?

Justice Clarence Thomas—- Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It will be five years next week since Justice Clarence Thomas spoke during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Before falling into this long silence, he posed a question on Feb. 22, 2006. In the past 40 years, no other justice has gone an entire term without speaking at least once during arguments, according to Timothy R. Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Can a justice effectively perform his duties without participating in oral argument? Does questioning the lawyers in court make much difference, or is it mostly a ritual, with the justices’ thinking pretty much set beforehand?

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