Thomas comes out fast with questions in new Supreme Court in-person argument format

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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas came out fast to ask the first questions of the new Supreme Court term Monday, signaling that he will continue to actively participate in oral arguments even though the court is returning to in-person hearings. 

“Counsel, you seem to complain about Tennessee pumping water from Mississippi, but you admit that Tennessee does not enter across the border into Mississippi, isn’t that correct?” Thomas asked a lawyer from Mississippi after he finished his opening statement in a water dispute. 

The question and its timing were notable because the court is adopting a new hybrid argument format. Before the pandemic,  justices interrupted counsel with a barrage of rapid-fire questions in no particular order. Thomas made clear his distaste for that system and almost never spoke. 

But when the court was forced to work remotely last year it began asking questions in descending order of seniority, a system Thomas participated in the same as all his fellow justices. 

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas attends the ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett to be the U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice on the South Lawn of the White House October 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Thomas asked the first question of the 2021-2022 Supreme Court term. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

The new system starts with an extended period of rapid-fire questioning followed by a more orderly opportunity for individual questioning by each justice at the end. But Thomas didn’t wait for the structured time and instead jumped right into the questioning in a way he almost never did before the pandemic. 

The first case of the Supreme Court term on Monday is a dispute over ground water between Tennessee and Mississippi. Mississippi alleges that Tennessee is essentially stealing ground water by pumping too much from a shared aquifer. 

Thomas peppered the Mississippi lawyer with several more tough questions after his first one. 

“Let’s say it was a lake and Tennessee was pumping water on its side of the lake. Couldn’t you argue that technically it was drawing water from Mississippi,” under Mississippi’s logic, Thomas asked that state’s lawyer. “Couldn’t Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri make the same argument that whenever you pump you’re causing similar problems for them?”

Former Thomas clerk and Judicial Crisis Network President Carrie Severino said that Thomas’ assertive nature in this first argument of the court’s 2021-2022 term is reflective of the new 6-3 conservative majority. 

“It is Justice Thomas’s moment as the intellectual leader of the Court and thus fitting to hear him ask the first question of the new term,” Severino said. 

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