Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who once went 10 years on the bench without asking a question during oral arguments, turned unusually talkative last week.
Thomas asked multiple questions Monday during arguments in a case over whether the company Booking.com “could trademark its namesake,” according to Fox News.
However, the unusual activity may not be attributable to any change in the justice’s noted preference for reticence, but rather a reflection of changes in court operations.
The court currently meets remotely, and hears oral arguments by telephone, with all of the arguments livestreamed.
Because of the change in circumstances, Chief Justice John Roberts ordered changes in the way justices ask questions.
The court’s traditional manner of operating was that after attorneys making their arguments got in a few minutes to speak, justices would ask questions in whatever order they pleased.
That allowed Thomas to hear the questions others asked and only speak when he felt a particular issue was not addressed.
During the court’s teleconference operations, Roberts has implemented a system in which there is an order to the process of asking questions. As chief justice, Roberts goes first. Justices then ask their questions in order of seniority.
Thomas, who is the senior justice, now only has responses to one justice’s questions in hand before he is able to ask questions.
Thomas had last asked a question in 2019, roughly three years after the last time he asked one, in 2016.
On Monday, he had questions for both the government and the company, Fox reported.
“Could Booking acquire an 800 number that’s a vanity number, 1-800-booking for example, that is similar to 1-800-plumbing, which is a registered mark?” Thomas asked Erica Ross, the U.S. government’s lawyer.
In a 2012 appearance, Thomas said the issue was not that he said too little but that his fellow justices ask too many questions.
“I don’t see where that advances anything,” he said then, according to CBS News.
“Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”
He said lawyers appearing before the court can make their arguments without interference.
“I don’t need to hold your hand, help you cross the street to argue a case. I don’t need to badger you,” he said.
Thomas also said attorneys have limited time to persuade the court.
“We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” he said. “They have 30, 40 minutes per side for cases that are important to them and to the country. They should argue. That’s a part of the process.
“I don’t like to badger people. These are not children. The court traditionally did not do that. I have been there 20 years. I see no need for all of that. Most of that is in the briefs, and there are a few questions around the edges.”
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