During her debut performance on the Supreme Court bench Monday, Sonia Sotomayor asked more questions in one hour than Clarence Thomas did over the course of several years, according to McClatchy News Service.
The famously taciturn Thomas went for two entire years — or 144 consecutive cases — without making a single statement, the AP reported in 2008.
By contrast, Sotomayor on Monday asked as many questions as Chief Justice John G. Roberts, according to the Washington Post.
Thomas has publicly addressed his silence on the bench. He has attributed it in part to his struggle as a child in Georgia to learn standard English after growing up speaking a dialect called Geechee, which thrived among former slaves, the AP reported.
But in recent years he has placed greater emphasis on another reason: a desire to minimize redundant back and forth exchanges on the bench.
“We are there to decide cases, not to engage in seminar discussions,” he once told U.S. News and World Report.
From the Los Angeles Times:
By mid-morning on the first day of the Supreme Court’s term, it was clear new Justice Sonia Sotomayor would fit right in — and in particular with her talkative fellow New Yorkers.
Sotomayor peppered the lawyers with questions in a pair of cases, joining with Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the oral arguments. Together, they left the other justices sitting in silence for much of the time.
In the first hour alone, Sotomayor asked 36 questions, and Scalia followed with 30. Ginsburg is particularly interested in legal procedures, and she and Sotomayor dominated the questioning for much of the second hour.
In the past, some rookie justices listened for days before joining in the fast-paced arguments. Justice David H. Souter, the reserved New Hampshire native whom Sotomayor replaced, said little during his first year. Justice Clarence Thomas has not asked a question for more than three years.
If anyone assumed Sotomayor would play the role of shy rookie, she dispelled that idea within the first minutes of the opening argument.
She leaned forward and began questioning Maryland Atty. Gen. Douglas Gansler about the Miranda rule, which requires police to warn a suspect that he has a right to remain silent and a right to lawyer. If a suspect says he wants a lawyer before he answers questions, the police must stop the questioning. It also bars police from trying again a day or two later to persuade him to talk without a lawyer.
But how long does this prohibition on questioning last? A police investigator in Maryland decided to visit an inmate who was held on other charges and ask him about an unresolved child abuse case. It was two years and seven months after the prisoner, Michael Shatzer, had refused to talk unless he had a lawyer. Shatzer made incriminating comments to the new investigator. After Shatzer was convicted of child abuse, a Maryland appeals court ruled that his rights were violated when he was questioned without a lawyer present.
The Supreme Court took up Maryland’s appeal, and the justices, Sotomayor included, sounded as if they were searching for a new rule that would allow questioning of crime suspects after a long lapse of time.
A lawyer for the convicted child abuser insisted he should not have been questioned once he had said he would not talk without a lawyer.
“So there is no termination point? Really?” asked Sotomayor, sounding as skeptical as Scalia.
The possibility of a rivalry between Scalia and Sotomayor has been the topic of speculation since her appointment. Scalia has been the court’s most outspoken conservative for more than 20 years, and Sotomayor had shown herself to be strong and assertive as a judge on the U.S. appeals court in Manhattan.
Outside the courtroom, she has already managed to upstage Scalia. A lifelong Yankees fan, she was invited to throw out the first ball in a recent game at Yankee Stadium. Scalia, another lifelong Yankees fan, is awaiting his invitation.