If Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is correct, oral arguments before the nation's most powerful court are nothing more than a dog and pony show.
Justice Thomas, who hasn't asked a lawyer a question during arguments since Feb. 22, 2006, criticized his colleagues for doing so when he spoke last week to law students at the University of Alabama. He stated -- correctly -- that the nine justices almost always know where they stand on a case because they have read legal briefs before the arguments, which are conducted in open court.
"So why do you beat up on people if you already know? I don't know, because I don't beat up on 'em. I refuse to participate. I don't like it, so I don't do it," he said. "All nine of us are in the same building. If we want to sway each other we know where we are. We don't need oral arguments to do that. It doesn't make any sense to me."
It is true that, by the time a case reaches the highest court in the land, thick legal briefs have dealt exhaustively with the points of law that will control the outcome. More broadly, though, the sessions give the public rare glimpses into the workings of a court whose members research in the privacy of their chambers, debate their colleagues in private, and issue rulings in legal writings that can seem impenetrable to most Americans.
Even if it's all just for show, as Justice Thomas suggested, let the show go on.