Clarence Thomas’s supreme silence


Justices of the Supreme Court sit for a new group picture in 2009. (BILL O'LEARY/TWP)
January 17, 2013

Earlier this week, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas spoke.

In most worlds, this would not be news. Thomas, after all, is a very well educated man. He was nominated to his job by the president of the United States and confirmed (albeit narrowly and in controversial fashion) by the U.S. Senate. He has held this job for more than 20 years. One would hope the man can speak.

And yet the man has been silent on the bench for nearly seven years, which is why an offhand utterance that made it into the official transcript launched a thousand headlines. Countless stories tried to dissect the justice’s four words, which appeared to be a joke about Yale Law School. Others debated whether or not Thomas actually broke lengthy silence, given that the four words in the official transcript were unclear and hardly constituted a question of legal significance. The Daily Show responded, naturally, with its own take, comparing the rarity of the moment to the appearance of Haley’s comet and a Mets World Series win.

Thomas’s cryptic and long-awaited remark has largely become a punch line, but maybe we should give him more credit for being the lone justice who seems to put listening at a premium. His defense of his taciturn tenure seems not only rational but sensible, especially in a town of outsized egos and spotlight-craving politicians.

Thomas has defended his silence by saying that engaging in debate in public is unnecessary for a case that’s made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Back in 2007, he explained his reserve on the Court at an event in Michigan this way: “Suppose you’re undergoing something very serious like surgery and the doctors started a practice of conducting seminars while in the operating room, debating each other about certain procedures and whether or not this procedure is this way or that way. You really didn’t go in there to have a debate about gallbladder surgery. You actually went in to have a procedure done. We are judges. This is the last court in a long line in our system. We are there to decide cases, not to engage in seminar discussions.” His best line: “This is not Perry Mason.”

Four years later, at an event in Kentucky, Thomas emphasized how important it is for judges to listen to lawyers. “We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” he said. “They have 30, 40 minutes per side for cases that are important to them and to the country. ....I don’t like to badger people. These are not children. The court traditionally did not do that.” He also admitted it could have something to do with his personality or the way he was raised. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.”

The real question, of course, isn’t when Thomas will ask a legal question, but whether his silence makes him any less of a force on the court. Some say it hasn’t: Supreme Conflict author Jan Crawford Greenburg has argued that Thomas is actually highly influential among his fellow justices, and that his “brutal confirmation hearings only enforced his autonomy, making him impervious to criticism…He’d told his story, and no one listened. From then on, he did not care what they said about him.”

The ability to listen is an attribute we value tremendously in most jobs, especially among people in leadership. There are different opinions, of course, on whether being a good listener really requires being quiet for nearly seven years, or whether there might be a way to strike some balance. But before we make Thomas’s silence little more than fodder for late-night comedians, it’s worth considering whether the alternative—yet another justice who talks at great length—would be much better.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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