WASHINGTON — Justice Clarence Thomas broke 10 years of silence and provoked audible gasps at the Supreme Court on Monday when he posed questions from the bench during an oral argument.

In a case about a federal law that bans people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, Thomas wanted to know of any other case where breaking a law suspends constitutional rights. The plaintiffs in this case are a Lewiston man and a New Vineyard man.

And it wasn’t just one question — it was a back-and-forth lasting a few minutes that stunned lawyers, reporters and others in the courtroom.

It was only the second week the court has heard arguments since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Thomas’ friend and fellow conservative.

For seven years, Thomas sat next to Scalia, who was famous for aggressive and sometimes combative questions from the bench. Scalia’s chair is now draped in black in a tribute to his death on Feb. 13.

Thomas’ questions Monday came in a case in which the court is considering placing new limits on the reach of the 1996 law. The court is considering an appeal from two Maine men who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership.


With about 10 minutes left in the hourlong session, Justice Department lawyer Ilana Eisenstein was about to sit down after asking the justices if there were no further questions. Thomas then caught her by surprise, asking whether a misdemeanor conviction of any other law “suspends a constitutional right.”

The sound of Thomas’ gravelly voice filling the courtroom prompted a few gasps among other lawyers attending the argument. None of the other justices visibly reacted to his remarks.

Thomas’s unusual silence has become a curiosity over the years. Thomas has previously said he relies on the written briefs and doesn’t need to ask questions of the lawyers appearing in court.

Thomas last asked a question in court on Feb. 22, 2006. He has come under criticism for his silence from some who say he is neglecting his duties as a justice. Every other justice regularly poses questions from the bench.

The 10-year milestone of his courtroom silence came just days after Scalia’s death. Thomas was one of only two people invited by Scalia’s family to read from Scripture during the funeral Mass on Feb. 20.

Few reporters showed up Monday for arguments in the first case, in which the justices considered appeals from two Maine men who say their guilty pleas for hitting their partners should not disqualify them from gun ownership. The men say the law should only cover intentional acts of abuse and not those committed in the heat of an argument.


During the first 50 minutes of the argument, most of the justices appeared to favor the government’s position that even reckless acts of domestic assault fall under the law. Thomas did not pose questions to Virginia Villa, the lawyer arguing on behalf of the two men.

But Thomas peppered Eisenstein with several questions about Second Amendment gun rights, a topic no other justice had asked about. He noted that the law allows someone convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge to get a lifetime ban on possessing a gun “which at least as of now results in suspension of a constitutional right.”

“The suspension is not directly related to the use of a weapon?” Thomas asked.

Eisenstein said he was correct, but that Congress passed the law to prevent people accused of domestic violence from later using weapons against a family member. She noted that violating other laws can in some cases limit a person’s free speech rights. Thomas then asked how long the suspension of the right to own a firearm lasts.

Eisenstein said it was indefinite.

In one of the cases, Stephen Voisine of Lewiston pleaded guilty in 2003 to simple assault after slapping his girlfriend in the face while he was intoxicated. In 2009, an anonymous caller reported that Voisine had shot a bald eagle with a rifle. He was then convicted under the gun law.


The other case involves William Armstrong III of New Vineyard, who pleaded guilty to simple assault in 2002 after pushing his wife during an argument and leaving a “red mark.” Eight years later, police searching Armstrong’s home discovered six firearms and ammunition.

The Maine cases:

In its decision upholding lower court rulings against Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong III, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the First District noted there is a “sobering” connection between domestic violence and homicide and the “manifest purpose” of the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 to ban those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing firearms was to remedy the “potentially deadly combination” of “firearms and domestic strife.”

Stephen Voisine

In March 2011, following an investigation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency, Voisine of Lewiston and Wytopitlock was charged with possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence assault and killing a bald eagle.

According to court records, Voisine was convicted in 2003 and 2005 of assaulting a woman with whom he was in a domestic relationship. As part of his conviction, he was banned from having a gun.


In 2009, Voisine was arrested by federal officials and charged with the federal misdemeanor crime of killing a bald eagle. According to court records, when conducting a background check, law enforcement officers discovered the 2003 misdemeanor assault. Voisine had already turned over his Remington .30-06 caliber rifle, which led to the additional charge of possession of a firearm.

He was convicted and sentenced to serve a year and a day in prison, followed by two years of unsupervised release. He was also fined $125.

William Armstrong III

In May 2010, Armstrong of New Vineyard was indicted by a U.S. District Court for a charge of possession of a firearm by a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. During the investigation, police seized seven firearms, including three rifles, three shotguns, a .22 caliber revolver and more than 1,700 rounds of ammunition.

According to court records, Armstrong was convicted of assaulting his wife in 1992, 2002 and again in 2008. In the 2008 case, he pushed and then slapped his wife after they got into an argument about baking cookies.

In 2010, when Maine State Police searched the family home for drug paraphernalia and marijuana, they discovered six guns and ammunition.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called to execute a search warrant, but found only ammunition.

According to court records, Armstrong’s wife arranged for a family friend to remove the guns. ATF officials later found the guns at the friend’s house.

In 2012, Armstrong pleaded guilty to the gun possession charge and was sentenced to serve three years of probation and fined $2,600.

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