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Clarence Thomas speaks in Supreme Court case for first time since 2016

SCOTUS justices disturbed by Flowers case
Supreme Court justices say they're disturbed by prosecution of Curtis Flowers 02:50

For the first time in three years, Clarence Thomas has broken his silence. The Supreme Court justice, who is known for going years without uttering a word during oral arguments, asked three brief questions during an argument Wednesday. It is only the third time since 2006 that Thomas said anything from the bench.

The case Wednesday, Flowers v. Mississippi, centers on whether a white Mississippi prosecutor intentionally kept black jurors off of six murder trials for a suspect named Curtis Flowers. Flowers was convicted in 2010 by a jury of 11 white people and one black person, and he is now on death row. Flowers has maintained his innocence and won several appeals, only to be convicted again at retrial. His case received wide attention when it was examined on the podcast "In The Dark," which uncovered troubling issues with the state's handling of the case.

After Flowers' lawyer, Sheri Lynn Johnson, finished her arguments Wednesday, Thomas asked two questions about whether Flowers' attorney in the 2010 trial had used any "peremptories," or exclusions of jurors. Johnson said that they were used in that trial.

"And what was the race of the jurors struck there?" Thomas asked, according to a transcript of the arguments.

"She only exercised peremptories against white jurors," Johnson replied. "But I would add that the motive — her motivation is not the question here. The question is the motivation of [District Attorney] Doug Evans."

Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas seen in a photo Sept. 29, 2009. Getty

The last time Thomas spoke in court was 2016, during a case about whether a domestic assault conviction could stop people from owning guns. Thomas asked several questions to the Justice Department's attorney, focusing on whether misdemeanor violations could suspend any other constitutional rights.

Before that remark, Thomas hadn't asked a question in arguments since 2006. The only thing he said in court during that decade-long silence was an apparent joke in 2013 about the competence of a lawyer who went to Yale Law School — which is Thomas' alma mater, and a school he has openly criticized. The complete context of Thomas' comment wasn't clear. An initial transcript said that during crosstalk, Thomas said, "Well — he did not," prompting laughter. An updated transcript had Thomas saying, "Well, there — he did not provide good counsel."

Over the years, Thomas has given various explanations for why he generally opts to keep quiet on the nation's highest bench, and said he believes other justices ask too many questions during arguments.

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