Justice Clarence Thomas Asks His First Questions in Supreme Court Session in 10 Years

Long silent, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in court for the first time in more than three years (and asked questions for the first time in 10) on February 29. Jason Reed/Reuters

For the first time in 10 years, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the high court's only black justice and one of its four conservatives, asked a series of questions during oral arguments before the court.

According to The Hill, Thomas questioned Assistant to the Solicitor General Ilana Eisenstein, who is representing the government in Voisine v. United States. Eisenstein is now the first attorney to be formally acknowledged by Thomas, who asked at least 12 questions on Monday, in a decade.

At stake in the Voisine case are the convictions of two Maine men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong III. They were convicted of assault and for breaking a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms by someone convicted of domestic violence.

Voisine and Armstrong argue that the federal law should apply only to those who intend to harm their partners—both men said they hit their girlfriends in fits of passion—and who do serious damage. Voisine was charged with domestic violence in 2003 after slapping his girlfriend while intoxicated, while Armstrong was charged with assault in 2002 after pushing his girlfriend against a wall during a dispute.

Thomas's questions appeared to concern not the issue of reckless versus intentional assault but rather a related constitutional question: whether the federal law prohibiting firearms ownership by those convicted of domestic violence violates their rights under the Second Amendment. Curiously, the court specifically declined to weigh in on that issue when it accepted the case in October.

Using an analogy, Thomas pressed Eisenstein to provide an example of when a person's First Amendment rights were permanently curtailed. According to The Hill, Thomas asked whether a publisher could be banned from publishing ever again if it was found that it recklessly used a child in advertising. "So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?" he asked.

Though Monday marked Thomas's first questions in a decade, he has broken his silence as recently as 2013, when he made a muffled joke about Yale, or possibly Harvard.