WASHINGTON (CN) - The death of Justice Antonin Scalia promises to change the way the Supreme Court operates in many potentially momentous ways, but Monday's arguments presented a more minor if equally noticeable shift on the nation's highest court.
For the first time in 10 years, Justice Clarence Thomas asked a question from the bench.
The query happened during remarks by Justice Department attorney Ilana Eisenstein in the case Voisine v. U.S., a challenge to the federal ban against firearm ownership by convicted domestic abusers.
Having spent the last 15 minutes defending the ban against people convicted of "reckless" misdemeanor charges, Eisenstein asked whether there were any more questions, and Thomas unexpectedly raised his voice.
"Ms. Eisenstein, one question," Thomas said.
There was an audible shift in the packed courtroom as the audience sat up in their chairs and members of the press scrambled for their notebooks and pens to capture what occasioned the conservative justice to break his 10-year streak not asking questions from the bench.
"Can you give me - this is a misdemeanor violation," Thomas said. "It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?"
Following up with nine more questions, Thomas pushed Eisenstein to come up with another scenario in which such a suspension would be warranted.
Though Thomas has not asked a question from the bench since Feb. 22, 2006, his fellow justices seemed unfazed by the change Monday. All either looked ahead as usual or turned to look as Thomas rolled through his questions.
He asked whether the government could shut down a publisher who was reckless in displaying children in compromising circumstances, suspending its First Amendment rights.
Eisenstein prompted another question by saying there could be some measured restrictions on the publisher.
"So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?" he asked.
The justice finally asked Eisenstein if the case would be better if the two petitioners had used guns in their acts of domestic violence, a point with which Eisenstein agreed.
Congress enacted a law in 1996 that prevents people convicted on misdemeanor domestic violence charges from owning guns.
In the case at hand, challengers Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong broke domestic-violence laws in Maine.
While Voisine assaulted a girlfriend in 2004, Armstrong pleaded guilty for doing the same to his wife in 2008. Both were charged with "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact."
Armstrong ran afoul of the federal law in 2010 when investigators found guns and ammunition in his house during a search in an unrelated drug case. He was soon charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by one previously convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.
Voisine, on the other hand, can point to the rumor of a dead bald eagle for his case's day in the Supreme Court. In 2009, with investigators homed in on him after receiving an anonymous tip claiming he had shot a bald eagle, Voisine turned over a gun, triggering his violation of the federal law.