Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Supreme Court justices are speaking up more because they're not afraid to be partisan

Justice Clarence Thomas is seldom discussed without mention of his unusual silence. Appointed in 1991, he has spoken fewer than three words, on average, per case at oral argument. In contrast, Justice Stephen G. Breyer speaks an average of 745 words per case. Thomas went 682 cases without uttering a single word between 2006 and 2016. When he eventually broke that silence, it made national news.

But such silence is unusual only today, at a time when combative justices argue with — and interrupt — one another. Twenty-five years ago, things were quite different. In a new study examining the full transcripts of every oral argument over 55 years, from 1960 to 2015, we found that judicial silence used to be quite ordinary. For most of the Supreme Court’s modern history, it was common for multiple justices in a given case to not speak, and it wasn’t unusual for justices to barely speak for entire terms.


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