Thomas Chides Colleagues For Too Many Questions

Apr 5, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Maybe it's Southern courtesy or his introverted nature that keeps him from interrupting attorneys during oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said Thursday evening.

Whatever the reason, the Georgia native had a blunt assessment about the rapid-fire questioning from some of his colleagues during recent hearings on the nation's health care law. The queries weren't helpful to him in deciding the case, he said.

And Thomas suggested his loquacious colleagues should do more listening and less talking.

"I don't see where that advances anything," he said of the frequent questions. "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."

His remarks drew applause from the audience that heard Thomas' insights on the court during a 90-minute appearance at the University of Kentucky. A relaxed Thomas answered questions from UK's law school dean, a law professor and a leading UK law school alum.

Thomas has gained a reputation for staying silent during oral arguments before the high court.

He said the lawyers presenting their cases are capable and don't need guidance from the justices: "I don't need to hold your hand, help you cross the street to argue a case. I don't need to badger you."

Thomas was asked specifically about the plethora of questions during three days of oral arguments as the justices decide whether to kill or keep President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. But Thomas said it's become habit for justices to interrupt 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. They should argue. That's a part of the process.

"I don't like to badger people. These are not children. The court traditionally did not do that. I have been there 20 years. I see no need for all of that. Most of that is in the briefs, and there are a few questions around the edges."

But Thomas also praised the "decency of the institution," saying the high court has remained immune to the courseness of public discourse. He said he counts his fellow justices as friends, liberals and fellow conservatives alike.

"I've yet to hear the first unkind word spoken in conference," Thomas said.

No matter the subject - whether it delves into abortion, the death penalty, free speech or other divisive issues - the justices are steadfast in reviewing the case with mutual respect, he said.

"Could you put nine people who have no decision-making authority in the room and have them discuss civilly their opinions on those issues, without raising their voices?" he said.

Thomas went on to criticize the personal nature of arguments elsewhere.

"I don't understand how we've gotten to this point where we think that because we don't agree with someone we have license to be unpleasant, we have license to be rude and nasty and uncivil," he said. "How does that advance the law? How do you win an argument with someone and persuade someone by starting out and calling them a jackass."

Meanwhile, Thomas sounded skeptical about opening the court's sessions to television cameras. He said he worries that the result could be that "tabloid interests in the issue overshadow the substantive nature of the issue."

Thomas also offered a glimpse into his personal life.

He said some of his "best buddies" didn't go to college, and others "weren't real interested when they did go." His friends talk about trucking, RVs, football - anything but the law, he said.

He said his wife asked him if he wanted a party for his 60th birthday. He declined. Instead, he went to a Cracker Barrel restaurant with a handful of his buddies, he said.

Thomas also teased University of Kentucky basketball fans while congratulating the team for winning the school's latest men's national title. The Wildcats defeated Kansas 67-59 Monday night to win the school's eighth NCAA championship.

"You all shouldn't be so happy, because maybe in this current environment we could redistribute a few of those," he said to laughter.