Sleeping Thomas

Joel Bleifuss

A friend, who recently argued a civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court, told me the following story: After the first couple of minutes of my argument, I looked over in the direction of Justice Clarence Thomas. He was sleeping. At first I thought he was just sitting with his eyes closed, but then I actually saw him jerking and twitching like people do when they are asleep. I would have been more shocked, except that in preparation I had gone and watched some arguments and I had seen him sleeping in every one of them. But somehow I thought that maybe for mine he would stay awake. What would disturb me most is if he were to write an opinion that strikes down my case, knowing that he slept through my argument and didn’t even have the courtesy to ask a question to clarify an issue. It is almost like a joke in the legal community, anytime anybody talks about an argument in the Supreme Court the question might come up about whether Clarence was awake or not. I heard that during arguments in a sexual harassment case he laid there with his feet up, face to the ceiling with his eyes closed and chewing gum—until he fell asleep. We can give Thomas a pass on this one, given that he’s already an expert on sexual harassment. Other lawyers who have argued cases before the Supreme Court told me that they noticed Thomas closes his eyes but were not sure whether he was sleeping. Veteran court watchers suffer the same doubt. “It is kind of tricky to tell if someone closes their eyes if they are asleep,” said Linda Greenhouse, who covers the court for the New York Times. What is certain is that Thomas is famous for not asking questions during oral arguments, which makes one wonder how much he takes in—eyes wide open or shut.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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