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World & Nation

A silent milestone for Clarence Thomas

The Supreme Court engaged in a fast-paced argument Tuesday over whether a microbiologist who tried to poison her husband’s lover with a toxic chemical could be charged under a federal law intended to regulate chemical weapons.

One justice, as usual, said nothing during arguments — as he has for exactly five years.

Justice Clarence Thomas speaks in the court only on the few occasions each year when he reads a decision. He last spoke during oral arguments on Feb. 22, 2006, during a South Carolina murder case, and has since sat silently through more than 350 cases.

Thomas has said oral arguments are unnecessary to deciding a case and are perhaps even a sideshow. The justices rely on written briefs and lower court opinions in making their decisions, he says.

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He has also suggested that more of his colleagues should follow his example, rather than interrupt the lawyers making their arguments.

“So why do you beat up on people if you already know?” he told law students at the University of Alabama two years ago. “I don’t beat up on them. I refuse to participate. I don’t like it, so I don’t do it.”

The other justices do not agree. They say the back-and-forth with lawyers gives them an opportunity to clarify aspects of the case. Sometimes, they also use the arguments to suggest ideas to get their colleagues’ attention.

On occasion, the justices say, the answers they hear persuade them to change their decision.

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Thomas, by contrast, indicates he has his mind made up before the argument.

Justice Antonin Scalia often asks 20 questions during an hourlong argument. On her first full day on the bench in October 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked more than 30 questions in a pair of cases, eclipsing Thomas’s career total in just one day.

Thomas’ aversion to legal arguments goes beyond the courtroom. In public appearances, Thomas usually steers clear of legal topics and controversies.

He usually charms audiences with his folksy, down-to-earth manner. He speaks of his devotion to Nebraska Cornhuskers football and his fondness for war movies. He says that when he is feeling down, he watches “Saving Private Ryan” in his den and is uplifted by the heroism of the troops who stormed the Normandy beaches.

His frequent topic is his journey from poverty in the South. When he was nominated to the high court in 1991, he repeated that he owed his success to his grandfather, who took him in when he was young.

Four years ago, he published a memoir, titled “My Grandfather’s Son,” that again told of how his grandfather’s influence shaped his life.

During Tuesday’s argument, Thomas appeared closely attentive as the justices debated whether Carol Bond, the woman charged under the chemical weapons law, should be allowed to argue that this use of the law was unconstitutional.

A lower court in Philadelphia ruled that she did not have standing to make a type of states'-rights claim, but all of the justices who spoke appeared ready to reverse that decision and give Bond a new chance to argue she should have been charged with assault under state law, not with a major federal offense.

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david.savage@latimes.com


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