Justice Thomas Breaks 10-Year Silence During Gun Ownership Case

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hadn't asked a question in court for 10 years before this week.

Believe it or not, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t asked a question in court for a full 10 years. He broke his silence this week to ask several questions during an oral argument in a gun rights case brought by two Maine men.

According to this story from the Portland Press Herald, Thomas stunned those present when he questioned the legal basis for suspending the constitutional rights of the men, who are banned by federal law from owning firearms because they have past convictions for domestic violence.

The last time Thomas asked a question in court was February 22, 2006. Over the years, his silence has caused some of his critics to say he's been neglecting his duties as justice. The story says he has previously responded that he relies on the written briefs and doesn't need to ask questions of the lawyers appearing in court.

Thomas' broken silence comes days after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, his friend and fellow conservative.

In the case, the court is considering placing new limits on the reach of the federal law that prohibits the men from owning firearms. The justices are considering appeals from the two men, who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership. The men say the law should only cover intentional acts of abuse and not those committed in the heat of a dispute, the story says.

With about 10 minutes left in the session, Thomas directed a question toward Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein.

"Ms. Eisenstein, one question," Thomas said. "This is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?"

Thomas then asked Eisenstein several questions about Second Amendment rights, noting that the law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge to receive a lifetime ban on possession a gun, “which at least as of now results in suspension of a constitutional right. The suspension is not directly related to the use of a weapon?”

Eisenstein said he was correct, but noted that Congress passed the law to prevent people accused of domestic violence from later using weapons against a family member, the story says. Thomas then asked how long the suspension of the right to own a firearm lasts, the story says.

Eisenstein said it was indefinite.