This seems significant:
Justice Clarence Thomas has not asked a question from the Supreme Court bench since 2006. His majority opinions tend to be brisk, efficient and dutiful.
Now, studies using linguistic software have discovered another Thomas trait: Those opinions contain language from briefs submitted to the court at unusually high rates.
The findings that the taciturn justice’s opinions appear to rely heavily on the words of others do not suggest misconduct — legal writing often tracks source materials — but they do illuminate his distinctive role on the court.
Since his views on major legal questions can be idiosyncratic and unlikely to command a majority, he is particularly apt to be assigned the inconsequential and technical majority opinions that the justices call dogs. They often involve routine cases involving taxes, bankruptcy, pensions and patents, in which shared wording is particularly common.
Justice Thomas’s seven majority opinions in the last term were on average just 12 pages long and contained little but a summary of the facts and quotations from or characterizations of the relevant statutes and precedents. Since opinions are signed by justices but often drafted by law clerks, it may be that any borrowed language was the work of Justice Thomas’s clerks.
It is true that such notions and the details from which they arise seem to many people obscure, or even petty. But to even casual observers of the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas is something of an enigma. And every time we get a glimpse into how he undertakes his role and duties as a Supreme Court Justice, we only end up with more questions, each stranger than the last.
But that’s the thing; compared to other aspects of his tenure, this isn’t exactly scandalous. In questions of scandal, it is just another piece of data that could be construed as relevant. Without worrying about such questions of scandal, this really is fascinating.
In June, he slipped in a playful aside. What he had just read, a description of synthetic drugs, he said to laughter, was “a sentence which I completely do not understand.”
Still, there is actually a lot more to Adam Liptak’s report for the New York Times; and, yes, it really is fascinating.
Image note: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughs while talking with other guests at The Federalist Society’s 2011 Annual Dinner. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)
Liptak, Adam. “A Supreme Court Justice of Few Words, Many of Them Other People’s”. The New York Times. 27 August 2015.