WASHINGTON -- Justice Clarence Thomas sat through 68 hours of oral arguments in the Supreme Court's current term without uttering a word.
That's saying something -- or not -- even for the taciturn justice.
In nearly 16 years on the court, Thomas typically has asked questions a couple of times a term.
He memorably spoke up four years ago in cases involving cross burning and affirmative action, the court's only Black justice in the unusual role of putting his race on display through questions to lawyers.
But the last time Thomas asked a question in court was Feb. 22, 2006, in a death penalty case out of South Carolina. A unanimous court eventually broadened the ability of death-penalty defendants to blame someone else for the crime.
Thomas has said in the past that he will ask a pertinent question if his colleagues don't but sees no need to engage in the back-and-forth just to hear his own voice.
A recent tally by McClatchy Newspapers underscored this point: Thomas has spoken 281 words since court transcripts began identifying justices by name in October 2004. By contrast, Thomas' neighbor on the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer, has uttered nearly 35,000 words since January.
The Georgia-born Thomas also has chalked up his silence to his struggle as a teenager to master standard English after having grown up speaking Geechee, a kind of dialect that thrived among former slaves on the islands off the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts.
A new book about Thomas, "Supreme Discomfort," by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, devotes an entire chapter to Thomas' courtroom reticence, calling it "one of his signature characteristics as a justice and a subject of ongoing fascination -- both in the legal community and among the public at large."
--The Associated Press