WASHINGTON – Justice Clarence Thomas participated in arguments at the Supreme Court via telephone rather than in person on Monday following a hospital stay of nearly a week.
Chief Justice John Roberts said at the beginning of arguments that the 73-year-old Thomas would be “participating remotely this morning," but did not say why.
Thomas' voice was clear when he asked several questions during arguments over a federal law meant to protect railroad workers, at one point making an analogy to when he drives his 40-foot long motor coach.
“Some of this seems a little bit counterintuitive and I admit to being a little bit wrapped around the axle,” Thomas said, eliciting smiles from some colleagues. Thomas also posed questions in the day's second case about arbitration.
Other justices have participated in arguments remotely since the court started its term in the fall.
Thomas missed all three days of arguments last week while he was hospitalized, although he is planning to take part in the decisions, Roberts said.
Thomas was admitted to the hospital March 18 after experiencing “flu-like symptoms” and was treated for an infection with intravenous antibiotics. Thomas did not have COVID-19, the court said. He has been vaccinated and had a booster shot, like the rest of the court. Though the court had said Thomas was expected to be released from the hospital by Tuesday, he was not discharged until Friday.
The court did not say why he remained in the hospital longer than initially thought or what kind of infection he was treated for.
Thomas, a conservative and appointee of former President George H.W. Bush, has been on the court since 1991.
Earlier this term, Justice Brett Kavanaugh participated remotely from his home after testing positive for COVID-19 and Justice Sonia Sotomayor participated remotely from her office when coronavirus case counts were particularly high. Justice Neil Gorsuch also participated remotely after getting what the court described as a “stomach bug,” but testing negative for COVID-19.
Because of the pandemic the court spent more than a year and a half hearing arguments remotely, with every justice participating by phone. While the justices and lawyers arguing the cases are back in the courtroom, it is still closed to the public.
But the court has relaxed some coronavirus-related requirements, making the wearing of masks optional for reporters and lawyers who have tested negative for COVID-19.
There was a second empty seat Monday, too. Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn't take part in either case because she was involved at earlier stages as a federal appeals court judge.