Politics

Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court Justice of Few Words, Some Not His Own

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addressed the Federalist Society in Washington in 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addressed the Federalist Society in Washington in 2007. (Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (New York Times) — 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, including quotations from statutes and earlier decisions, is particularly common.

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