WASHINGTON — Breaking a decade-long silence, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday asked several questions from the Supreme Court bench. He spoke just weeks after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose empty seat next to Justice Thomas’s remains draped in black.
It was hard to escape the conclusion that the absence of the voluble Justice Scalia, who had dominated Supreme Court arguments for nearly 30 years on the bench, somehow liberated Justice Thomas and allowed him to resume participating in the court’s most public activity.
Justice Thomas’s questions came in a minor case on domestic violence convictions and gun rights. He asked a series of questions about whether misdemeanor convictions can permanently suspend a constitutional right.
The questioning started as the morning’s first argument was winding down and Ilana H. Eisentein, a lawyer for the federal government, uttered a common concluding sentence. “If there are no further questions,” she said.
“Ms. Eisenstein, one question,” he started, according to a transcript released by the court. “This is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”
After some back and forth, Ms. Eisenstein said she could not think of one, though she added that First Amendment rights could be affected in comparable settings.
“O.K.,” he said. “So can you think of a First Amendment suspension or a suspension of a First Amendment right that is permanent?”
Here again, Ms. Eisenstein offered a concession. “Your Honor,” she said, “it’s not necessarily permanent as to the individual, but it may be permanent as to a particular harm.”
The barrage of sharp, pointed questions continued, with Justice Thomas seeming to have the better of several of the exchanges.
Justice Thomas last asked a question on Feb. 22, 2006, in a death penalty case. He spoke a total of 11 times earlier in that term and in the previous one.
He has offered shifting reasons for his 10 years of silence. In his 2007 memoir, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he wrote that he had never asked questions in college or law school and that he had been intimidated by some of his fellow students.
He has also said he is self-conscious about the way he speaks, partly because he had been teased about the dialect he grew up speaking in rural Georgia.
In Monday’s second argument, on judicial recusals, Justice Thomas was again quiet.