WASHINGTON – When Clarence Thomas speaks, people listen.
The current Supreme Court's longest-serving justice did just that Wednesday, asking two pointed questions near the end of an hour-long oral argument about a Mississippi prosecutor's persistent refusal to seat African-American jurors.
Most of the questioning to that point had been detrimental to the state's case against Curtis Flowers, who's been tried six times for the 1996 murders of four people inside a Winona, Mississippi, furniture store. A majority of justices appeared convinced that black jurors were struck because of their race.
But Thomas, who is black, wanted to confirm what he no doubt knew: that defense attorneys had used their jury strikes only against white jurors. Both sides, he seemed to imply, can play that game.
"Were any peremptories exercised by the defendant?" Thomas asked. Peremptory strikes are used by lawyers on both sides to block jurors from the trial.
"They were," Flowers' Supreme Court attorney, Sheri Lynn Johnson, said.
"And what was the race of the jurors struck there?" Thomas asked.
"She only exercised peremptories against white jurors," Johnson said.
In a similar case three years ago, Thomas was the lone dissenter when the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia prosecutors unconstitutionally barred all potential black jurors from an African-American murder suspect's trial three decades earlier.
He warned then that the court's ruling "invites state prisoners to go searching for new 'evidence' by demanding the files of the prosecutors who long ago convicted them."
The 70-year-old conservative justice, a 28-year veteran of the high court, almost always sits silently while his eight colleagues pepper lawyers with questions. He last piped up in 2016 – two weeks after the death of his close friend, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia – with an extensive series of questions defending Second Amendment gun rights.
Before that, it had been 10 years since Thomas asked questions inside the courtroom, other than whispering to his colleagues and once quipping about the relative value of Ivy League degrees.
Thomas has made it a rule to let lawyers have their say during oral arguments, believing that the sessions are their opportunity to make their case. He is alone in that belief. Led in the past by Scalia, the other justices pounce on the lawyers and seldom let up.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justice Clarence Thomas breaks three-year silence in Mississippi case about racial bias in jury selection