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US Supreme Court Judge Speaks, 1st Time in 10 Years

In this Jan. 26, 2012 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speaks at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Thomas has asked questions during Supreme Court arguments for the first time in 10 years. Thomas' question came Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
US Supreme Court Judge Speaks, 1st Time in 10 Years
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United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas shocked everyone during a court session on Monday. He asked several questions for the first time in 10 years.

The Associated Press reported that the sound of Thomas’ voice drew gasps from some lawyers watching the Monday session.

The case was an appeal by two men who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not bar them from owning a gun.

With about 10 minutes left in an hour-long hearing, U.S. Justice Department attorney Ilana Eisenstein was about to sit down. She noted there did not seem to be “any further questions” from the Supreme Court Justices.

“Ms. Eisenstein, one question,” Thomas said.

Justice Thomas then asked if a “misdemeanor violation of domestic conduct” should result in a “life-time ban” on the right to own a gun.

Eisenstein responded that Congress moved in 1996 to ban people who attack their partners from having a gun because they pose a greater risk “of killing, by a gun, their family member.”

But Thomas questioned if that made sense when the conduct at issue in the case before the Supreme Court did not involve a gun.

Thomas last asked a question on February 22, 2006, in a death penalty case.

In a speech to Harvard University in 2013, Thomas said he does not think asking questions is helpful.

“I think we should listen to lawyers who are arguing their cases, and I think we should allow the advocates to advocate,” he said.

Michael Fletcher, who co-wrote a 2008 biography on Thomas, said the recent death of his conservative court ally, Antonin Scalia, might have prompted him to ask questions. Scalia tended to ask more questions than any other justice.

“The timing of his questions leads one to believe that it has something to do with Justice Scalia’s death,” Fletcher told VOA Learning English. “But at the same time it is hard to sustain the idea that he is trying to fill some void.”

Unlike Scalia, Fletcher said, Thomas does not seem to enjoy “confrontations with his ideological opposites.” Fletcher’s book on Thomas was called, “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas.”

Steve Wermiel, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said one reason Thomas may have spoken Monday is because the issue was on gun rights. Thomas, he said, has long been a strong believer in the Second Amendment. The amendment permits Americans to own guns.

“Second, he often suggested that there was already too much questioning by the Justices and not enough time for the lawyers to make their arguments,” Wermiel told Voice of America. “With Justice Scalia gone, he may feel that there is more room for questions, but especially about a subject about which he cares deeply.”

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

misdemeanor – n. a crime that is less serious than a felony

domestic – adj. relating to or involving someone's home or family

tend – v. what often happens

sustain – v. to provide what is needed for (something or someone) to exist, continue

void – n. something missing

confrontation – n. a situation in which people, groups, etc., fight, oppose, or challenge each other in an angry way

ideological – adj. set of ideas and beliefs of a person or a group

discomfort – n uncomfortable feeling