What we know about the hospitalization of Judge Clarence Thomas

FILE - U.S. Supreme Court Associate Clarence Thomas speaks at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., September 16, 2021. Thomas was hospitalized due to an infection, said the Supreme Court on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Thomas, 73, has been at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, since Friday, March 18 after experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” the court said in a statement.  (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP, file)

FILE – U.S. Supreme Court Associate Clarence Thomas speaks at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., September 16, 2021. Thomas was hospitalized due to an infection, said the Supreme Court on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Thomas, 73, has been at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, since Friday, March 18 after experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” the court said in a statement. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP, file)

PA

Justice Clarence Thomas remains hospitalized in Washington after being diagnosed with the infection but does not have COVID-19, the Supreme Court said Monday.

The high court announced on Sunday evening that the 73-year-old judge had been admitted to hospital on Friday after experiencing “flu-like symptoms” and undergoing tests. The court said Thomas had been diagnosed with an infection and was being treated with intravenous antibiotics. The court said at the time that “his symptoms were improving”, but did not say that Thomas had tested negative for the virus.

During oral arguments in court on Monday, Thomas’ chair to the right of Chief Justice John Roberts was empty and Roberts took note of Thomas’ absence without explaining why. He said Thomas would participate in cases based on written briefs and recordings of arguments in court. Thomas, who has served on the court since 1991, is currently its most senior judge.

News of Thomas’ hospitalization came just before the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on Monday on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom President Joe Biden nominated to replace outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer. If confirmed, she would be the first black woman on the court, but her confirmation would not change the ideological balance on the court. Thomas is the court’s second black judge and one of six conservatives currently on the court.

Several lawmakers and the White House wished Thomas a speedy recovery. Some questions and answers about Thomas’ hospitalization:

IF IT’S NOT COVID-19, WHAT IS NOT FALSE?

The court did not provide any additional information about the infection that put Thomas in the hospital, other than to say he is responding to intravenous antibiotics. There was no indication of the severity of the infection or its cause, but the court ruled on Sunday evening that he should be out in a day or two.

Thomas has no known health issues, but judges make their own decisions about what health information to disclose and when. The court said all nine justices received the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot.

The court occasionally releases health and other information about various judges. His website has press releases dating back to late 2002, including releases about other judges’ health issues. Sunday’s news appeared to be the first time the court had released information about Thomas’ health in this way.

IS IT WEIRD THAT THE PUBLIC DIDN’T KNOW IMMEDIATELY THAT THOMAS HAS BEEN HOSPITALIZED?

No. The court offered no explanation as to why the news that the judge was in hospital was not released earlier, but it is not always clear when judges receive medical treatment .

For example, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quite open about her many health issues over the years, including multiple bouts of cancer. But in 2020, she waited over four months to reveal her cancer had returned and she was undergoing chemotherapy.

That same year, Chief Justice John Roberts spent a night in a hospital after falling and hurting his forehead and needing stitches. The injury wasn’t revealed until a month later, and only because the Washington Post found out.

Now-retired judge Anthony Kennedy was also a mom. In 2005, he said nothing publicly when he had a stent inserted to hold an artery open after experiencing mild chest pain. The court did not reveal the procedure until Kennedy returned to the hospital to have the stent replaced 10 months later.

IS THIS THE FIRST TIME A JUDGE HAS MISSED ARGUMENTS BUT ALWAYS VOTED ON A CASE?

No, and there are other recent examples. In early 2019, when Ginsburg was recovering from cancer surgery, she missed arguments but participated in decisions based on briefs and transcripts of arguments. She eventually missed six days during which the court heard a total of eleven arguments and returned to the courtroom for arguments the following month.

In 2004 and 2005, when Chief Justice William Rehnquist suffered from thyroid cancer and was off the bench for 44 arguments over five months. Rehnquist voted in most cases in which he did not attend oral argument.

WAS THOMAS STILL ABLE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE HOSPITAL’S ARGUMENTS?

Theoretically, yes. Other judges have participated in remote oral arguments since the court began its term in the fall and some lawyers have done so as well. Judge Brett Kavanaugh participated remotely from his home after testing positive for COVID-19 and Judge Sonia Sotomayor participated remotely from his office when the number of coronavirus cases was particularly high. Judge Neil Gorsuch also participated remotely after getting what the court described as a “stomach bug” but testing negative for COVID-19.

For some reason, Thomas doesn’t. Had he done so, however, he would not have been the first judge to participate in a hospital’s arguments. Ginsburg competed remotely from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 2020 while hospitalized with an infection caused by a gallstone. At the time, all judges were participating remotely and the court was hearing arguments over the phone due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The judges returned to in-person arguments in October after more than a year and a half of telephone arguments. The courtroom is however still closed to the public due to the pandemic.

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