Stephen Breyer Says Clarence Thomas Asking More Questions Is a 'Plus for Everybody'

Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said it's a "plus for everybody" that his colleague, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, is asking more questions during the Court's oral arguments.

Breyer spoke at a virtual event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on Wednesday about his new book The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics and answered questions from participants about his work.

Thomas, the longest serving member of the Court, has developed a reputation for remaining silent during the rapid-fire questioning portion of arguments before the Court, but surprised many this month by asking the first question of the 2021/2022 term.

Breyer answered questions from a three-person panel on Wednesday, consisting of Museum President & CEO Jack Kliger, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and his own daughter, Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, who is executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York.

The justice, who is the most senior member of the Supreme Court's liberal wing, discussed the late conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and was then asked about his relationship with Thomas.

"He's a good friend," Breyer said. "I think he's a very decent person. I think he has a great sense of humor. And there are a lot of ways of approaching law that we don't agree about."

"He's honest," Breyer went on. "He's very straightforward and now, I think, one of the virtues of this system that we had during COVID of just having our oral argument over the telephone - he began to ask more questions.

"Because the reason he wasn't really asking questions - I sat next to him for 27 years, you know, and I know he was thinking about these cases and I know to a degree what his questions were - but he didn't like interrupting people."

In oral arguments, the justices ask counsel questions in quick succession, and any justice can jump in and there are often interruptions. Thomas was known to dislike this method. During the COVID pandemic, the Court conducted oral arguments virtually and used a different system where justices asked questions in order of seniority.

The Court is now holding in-person hearings again and using a mix of both systems but Thomas was the first justice to ask a question during the rapid-fire session this term.

Breyer was asked if Thomas was now asking more questions in person and replied: "Absolutely, and that's a plus for everybody."

Later in the event, Breyer once again defended the Court from accusations that its decisions were political. He has previously dismissed such claims, while Thomas and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett have also recently defended the Court.

Breyer said that political groups might push candidates they favored, but: "The judge doesn't see himself as political. Once that robe goes on, you're deciding according to the law."

Thomas and Breyer Testify on Capitol Hill
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas (L) and Stephen Breyer (R) testify during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on April 15, 2010, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Breyer described Thomas as a "friend" during remarks on Wednesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images