The Supreme Court's return from its midwinter break next week will mark a legal milestone: It will have been five years since Justice Clarence Thomas last spoke during a court argument, a record unequalled by any other justice in recent decades. His "epic silence on the bench is just one part of his enigmatic and contradictory persona," says Adam Liptak in The New York Times. Here, a brief guide, by the numbers, to Justice Thomas's silent years:
Number of years, as of next Tuesday, since Justice Thomas last spoke during a court argument. "While Thomas's silence on the bench may be regrettable, there's no question he's taking a very active part in the justices' internal debates," says Damon W. Root in Reason. "And that, after all, is where the court's decisions are ultimately made."
Number of years since any other justice has gone an entire term, let alone five, without speaking, according to Timothy R. Johnson, a University of Minnesota political science professor
Average number of questions per hourlong argument that Supreme Court justices collectively asked from 1988 to 2008. That's more than two questions per minute. "Thomas isn't wrong to suggest that the last thing the bench needs is another chatterbox," says Dahlia Lithwick at Slate.
Average number of questions per hourlong argument asked by Supreme Court justices from 1972 to 1987. "The post-Scalia court, from 1986 onward, has become a much more talkative bench," says Professor Johnson.
Nearly 1 out of 5
Number of questions from the bench that have come from Justice Antonin Scalia in the last 20 years. "Thomas's ultraconservative ideological court soul mate Antonin Scalia is the most verbose [justice]," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson at Thy Black Man.
Number of times Justice Thomas spoke in the 2005-2006 term, before beginning his silent streak. His last question was on a death penalty case on February 22, 2006. "His few questions were typically pithy and pointed," says Adam Liptak in The New York Times.
Number of times Justice Thomas spoke in the 2004-2005 term.
No less than 5
Number of explanations Thomas has offered for his silence. They include: 1) Being self-conscious about his accent; 2) Feeling that the bench already asks enough questions; 3) Thinking that another justice will inevitably ask any question he might pose; 4) Believing that he learns more by listening than by talking; and 5) Feeling that it's "counterproductive" to interrupt lawyers in the middle of their arguments.