Justice Clarence Thomas stunned lawyers, reporters and others at the Supreme Court on Monday when he posed questions during an oral argument for the first time in 10 years.
It was the second week the court has heard arguments since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas' friend and fellow conservative. Thomas for years sat directly to Scalia's right. Scalia's chair is now draped in black in a tribute to his death on Feb. 13.
Thomas' questions came in case in which the court is considering placing new limits on the reach of a federal law that bans people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns.
With about 10 minutes left in the hourlong session, Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein was about to sit down after answering a barrage of questions from other justices. Thomas then caught her by surprise, asking whether the violation of any other law "suspends a constitutional right.''
Thomas's unusual silence over the years has become a curiosity over the years. Thomas has previously said he relies on the written briefs and doesn't need to ask questions of the lawyers appearing in court.
Thomas last asked a question in court on Feb. 22, 2006. He has come under criticism for his silence from some who say he is neglecting his duties as a justice. The 10-year milestone of his courtroom silence came just days after Scalia's death. Thomas was one of only two people invited by Scalia's family to recite a prayer during the funeral Mass on Feb. 20.
Few reporters showed up Monday for arguments in the first case, in which the justices considered appeals from two Maine men who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership. The men say the law should only cover intentional acts of abuse and not those committed in the heat of an argument.
During the first 45 minutes of the argument, most of the justices appeared to favor the government's position that even reckless acts of domestic assault fall under the law. Thomas did not pose questions to Virginia Villa, the lawyer arguing on behalf of the two men.
But Thomas peppered Eisenstein with several questions about Second Amendment gun rights, a topic no other justice had asked about. He noted that the law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge to get a lifetime ban on possessing a gun "which at least as of now results in suspension of a constitutional right.''
"The suspension is not directly related to the use of a weapon?'' Thomas asked.
Eisenstein said he was correct, but that Congress passed the law to prevent people accused of domestic violence from later using weapons against a family member. She noted that violating other laws can in some cases limit a person's free speech rights. Thomas then asked how long the suspension of the right to own a firearm lasts.
Eisenstein said it was indefinite.
In one of the cases, Stephen Voisine pleaded guilty in 2003 to simple assault after slapping his girlfriend in the face while he was intoxicated. In 2009, an anonymous caller reported that Voisine had shot a bald eagle with a rifle. He was then convicted under the gun law.
The other case involves William Armstrong III, who pleaded guilty to simple assault in 2002 after pushing his wife during an argument and leaving a "red mark.'' Eight years later, police searching Armstrong's home discovered six firearms and ammunition.