Clarence Thomas asks questions in court for 1st time in 10 years

(AP File)

WASHINGTON (CBS News) – 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.

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