WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court engaged in a fast-paced argument Tuesday over whether a microbiologist who tried to poison her husband’s lover with a toxic chemical could be charged under a federal law intended to regulate chemical weapons.
One justice, as usual, said nothing during arguments – as he has for exactly five years.
Justice Clarence Thomas speaks in the court only on the few occasions when he reads a decision. He last spoke during oral arguments on Feb. 22, 2006, during a South Carolina murder case and has since sat silently through more than 350 other cases.
Thomas has said oral arguments are unnecessary to deciding a case and perhaps even a sideshow. The justices rely on written briefs and lower court opinions in making their decisions, he says.
He has also suggested that more of his colleagues should follow his example, rather than interrupt the lawyers making their arguments.
“So why do you beat up on people if you already know?” he told law students at the University of Alabama two years ago. “I don’t beat up on them. I refuse to participate. I don’t like it, so I don’t do it.”
The other justices do not agree. They say the back-and-forth with the lawyers gives them an opportunity to clarify aspects of the case. Sometimes, they also use the arguments to throw out ideas to get their colleagues’ attention.
On occasion, the justices say, the answers they hear persuade them to change their decision.
Thomas, by contrast, indicates he has his mind made up before the argument.
During Tuesday’s argument, Thomas appeared to be paying close attention as the justices debated whether Carol Bond, the woman charged under the chemical weapons law, should be allowed to argue that this use of the law was unconstitutional.
A lower court in Philadelphia ruled that she did not have “standing” to make a type of states-rights claim, but all the justices who spoke appeared ready to reverse that decision and give Bond a new chance to argue she should have been charged with assault under state law, not a major federal offense.