TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Clarence Thomas, the justice long known as the silent member of the Supreme Court, criticized his colleagues Friday for badgering attorneys rather than letting them speak during oral arguments.
Thomas – who hasn’t asked a lawyer a question during arguments in nearly four years – said he and the other eight justices virtually always know where they stand on a case by reading legal briefs before oral arguments.
“So why do you beat up on people if you already know? I don’t know, because I don’t beat up on ‘em. I refuse to participate. I don’t like it, so I don’t do it,” Thomas said during an appearance before law students at the University of Alabama.
Thomas didn’t name names, but fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia is generally considered the court’s most aggressive questioner during oral arguments. President Barack Obama’s lone nominee so far, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, isn’t afraid to ask questions either.
Thomas scoffed at the idea that the justices try to use questions to influence the opinions of fellow members of the court.
“All nine of us are in the same building,” he said. “If we want to sway each other we know where we are. We don’t need oral arguments to do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Thomas spoke briefly to the students before answering questions during a nearly 1 and 1/2 session, ranging over issues including the confirmation process and the court’s makeup.
A conservative nominated by then-President George H.W. Bush, Thomas was sworn in only after a bruising confirmation fight that included sexual harassment allegations he always has denied.
He compared Senate confirmation to selecting the referees for a college football game in hopes of getting favorable calls for one team or the other.
“That’s all based on a particular outcome you want. That is the antithesis of judging. You’re corrupting your process,” he said. “I think the confirmation process is both unnecessary, it’s uninformed with respect to what the court actually does and it’s very dangerous.”
A native of Georgia and the only current justice from the South, Thomas said the court is too dominated by Ivy League lawyers and lacks regional diversity. People constantly worry about racial, gender and ethnic diversity, he said, and home states matter, too.
“My goal is to have a court that is fair, and I think it’s fair when we are fair in selecting people from all parts of the country, from all walks of life,” Thomas said.
Thomas graduated from the Yale University law school. In all, eight of the nine current justices graduated from Ivy League schools.