Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke a seven year period of silence on Monday, speaking during oral arguments for the first time since 2006. The court was hearing a case regarding whether or not the state of Louisiana had violated Jonathan Edward Boyer’s constitutional rights by failing to fund counsel for Boyer, a capital defendant. While a Louisiana state lawyer Carla Sigler addressed the court, Thomas apparently made a quip regarding his alma mater Yale when the school was mentioned by the Sigler.
Thomas’s comment came so quickly that the court’s transcript was forced to leave part of it blank, with his response reading “Well — he did not --” and bringing the court to laughter. Sigler was attempting to prove the credentials of the team of lawyers assigned to defend Boyer, two of whom went to Harvard and Yale universities. Thomas has long believed that his own education at Yale was devalued in the past due to affirmative action.
“I peeled a 15 cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale,” Thomas wrote in his 2007 memoir. “I never did change my mind about its value.”
NYU law student Billy Freeland was present at the hearing, and tweeted “Thomas might have cracked, ‘That’s not effective counsel.’ But hard to hear. We’ll see what transcript says!” supporting the likelihood of a Yale joke by Thomas. An audio recording of the session will be made available on Friday.
Thomas, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Quiet Clarence,” has served on the Supreme Court for more than two decades, but has been notably silent in recent years. He was just the second African-American named to the court, succeeding Thurgood Marshall. Thomas last spoke during oral arguments in February 2006, offering a question during Holmes v. South Carolina, another capital case.