Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Removing all doubt

Abraham Lincoln supposedly said it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

After seven years Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has chosen the latter. Justice Thomas made his first comment during oral argument on Monday since February of 2006. But instead of asking a question of the litigants, he remarked about a joke that one of the lawyers told.

I'm sure the person at the heart of the case, Jonathan Boyer, wouldn't have been quite as amused. Mr. Boyer is on in the state penitentiary in Louisiana after being convicted of murder. Mr. Boyer was held in custody for seven years before going to trial. He is arguing that his right to a speedy trial was violated and that the conviction should be overturned. He is also arguing that the lawyers appointed to represent him at trial weren't qualified to try a murder case.

But Justice Thomas wasn't too concerned about the plight of Mr. Boyer. He was more interested in a joke about a lawyer who went to Yale and a lawyer who went to Harvard.

And that's what happens when you are totally divorced from reality. Clarence Thomas should never have been put on the Supreme Court. He wasn't qualified at the time he was appointed and he isn't qualified today. The other justices read the briefs drafted by their clerks and ask questions to clarify what relief is being sought, on what grounds and basis for the claim. They will interrupt a litigant to ask him to clarify a point or to find out why he or she thinks the case at hand is different from a case previously decided.

In the last seven years Clarence Thomas has heard lawyers arguing about the death penalty, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment, the federal sentencing guidelines and the disparity between sentences for possession of crack and power cocaine. And for those seven years he sat there mute.

And, instead of asking a profound question or making an incisive remark, Justice Thomas opened up his mouth to comment on a joke.

The joke, I'm afraid, is on us.

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