Justice Thomas quietly marks an anniversary

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A unique anniversary at the Supreme Court passed in silence Tuesday, befitting the occasion. It has been five years to the day since Justice Clarence Thomas last spoke at oral argument, another reflection of the complex, dynamic, often misunderstood personality of the court's only African-American jurist.

The two hours of morning arguments found the 62-year-old Thomas rocking in his high-backed leather chair, often consulting legal papers in front of him. He stroked his hair a few times, looked up at the ceiling, and whispered with Justice Stephen Breyer, a close colleague despite their ideological differences.

His "just say nothing" approach harkens back to a time many decades ago, when justices spoke very rarely at public sessions, allowing lawyers to argue their case for hours, sometimes days on end, without interruption. Arguments today are a rapid-fire question-and-answer free-for-all, with the court peppering attorneys standing before them with hypotheticals, precedents, and their own personal views on the case at hand. Thomas alone refuses to jump into the fray.

Legal blogs and various commentators have been busy the past few weeks leading up the dubious anniversary, wondering what Thomas' silence means for the court itself, in its broader decision-making process. Written opinions remain the main way the court expresses its precedent-setting power, but oral arguments can serve an important function -- helping to focus an appeal's flaws along the fringes of constitutional limits, an exercise for the benefit of the public and the justices themselves. These public sessions are often an ideal way to test often novel legal theories and to help a justice answer any lingering issues that prove decisive in the opinion-writing process to follow.

Thomas does occasionally speak from the bench, when announcing opinions he has written, but before arguments commence. Off the bench, especially in friendly audiences, the justice can be gregarious, fun, inquisitive, and often self-reflective. He has a booming voice, and his hearty laugh is easily recognizable....

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