Something very unusual happened at the Supreme Court yesterday, but it didn’t have much to do with the case being considered. Near the end of oral arguments in a case involving alleged racial bias in jury selection, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas “stunned” the crowd by asking a question. It wasn’t even a particularly unusual question and definitely seemed relevant to the issues at hand, but the simple fact that Thomas even opened his mouth was sufficient to generate headlines. (The Hill)
Justice Clarence Thomas, who is known for his silence, shocked spectators in court Wednesday when he asked a question during arguments in a dispute over racial discrimination in jury selection.
Thomas’s question, which marks the second time in a decade the court’s leading conservative has spoken during arguments, came in the case of a Mississippi man who has been tried six times for the 1996 murders of four people inside a furniture store.
Thomas last spoke in February 2016 when he asked several questions during oral arguments in a gun rights case.
The case under discussion is Flowers v. Mississippi and it could turn out to be an important one. Curtis Flowers was accused of murdering four employees inside a Mississippi furniture store in 1996. Since then, he’s been put on trial six times, finally being found guilty during the last attempt and sentenced to death.
At issue here isn’t the fundamental question of whether Flowers is guilty or not, but rather whether he received a fair trial. The defense claims that the prosecutor in the case rejected nearly every black person in the jury pool, working to get a nearly all-white jury that would convict the defendant. The Supreme Court ruled in a previous case that using race as a basis for rejecting jurors is not allowed, but it’s a tough standard to uphold. Both sides can always come up with other reasons for rejecting a potential juror. In this case, the prosecutor argued that five of the six black members of the jury pool had connections to the furniture store and/or some of the people who worked there. The sixth black candidate was seated on the jury.
Thomas wound up asking the defense if they had rejected any potential jurors and what race they were. They said they had also rejected some and they were all white. So what prompted Clarence Thomas to break his silence this time? Perhaps it was just the failure of the rest of his colleagues to ask that particular question. As I said, it certainly seems like a valid point to bring up.
Why does Thomas almost never speak up during oral arguments? He’s answered that question in the past. At an event in 2012, he stated that he would get rid of the oral arguments portion of cases if he were able because he doesn’t find the questioning process helpful. He also cited his southern upbringing, saying “when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”
Of course, if the Associate Justice is really feeling chatty this month, perhaps he could give us an indication as to whether he plans on retiring after this session and hitting the road in his RV. That would certainly generate some headlines.