Clarence Thomas, Federal Judges, Law Schools, Quote of the Day, SCOTUS, Supreme Court

Quote of the Day: Justice Thomas Speaks!

(Huh? Well, that’s how it appears in the official Supreme Court transcript; obviously something got lost in transcription. We try to make sense of it all, after the jump.)

Despite being gregarious off the bench, Justice Clarence Thomas is famously silent while on the bench. Justice Thomas has not spoken during a Supreme Court oral argument since February 22, 2006. The seven-year anniversary of CT’s silence was just a few short weeks away.

But today Justice Thomas broke his silence, in the case of Boyer v. Louisiana (“[w]hether a state’s failure to fund counsel for an indigent defendant for five years as a direct result of the prosecution’s choice to seek the death penalty should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes”). Although the full substance of his remarks didn’t quite make the transcript, perhaps because it was difficult to hear him, apparently he poked fun at his alma mater, Yale Law School.

There’s a detailed blow-by-blow over at Josh Blackman’s site, where he rounds up real-time tweets and reviews the transcript. Here’s how SCOTUSblog characterized Justice Thomas’s comment:

Thomas, J. (Yale, JD), speaks: funny at argument—Yale degree could mean lawyer is incompetent, not competent, capital trial counsel.

You can see a glimmer of that in the official transcript:

JUSTICE SCALIA: She was a graduate of Yale law school, wasn’t she?

MS. SIGLER: She’s a very impressive attorney.

JUSTICE SCALIA: And another of his counsel, Mr. Singer — of the three that he had — he was a graduate of Harvard law school, wasn’t he?

MS. SIGLER: Yes, Your Honor.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Son of a gun.

JUSTICE THOMAS: Well — he did not -­ (Laughter.)

MS. SIGLER: I would refute that, Justice Thomas.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Counsel, do you want to define constitutionally adequate counsel? Is it anybody who’s graduated from Harvard and Yale?


JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Or even just passed the Bar?


Geaux Tigers!

For a number of years, Justice Thomas and Yale Law School had a somewhat strained relationship. More recently, however, they achieved détente, culminating in Justice Thomas visiting YLS in December 2011. But old habits die hard; it seems CT couldn’t resist getting in just one more dig at the hyper-theoretical, pointy-headed academic types up in New Haven.

The Twitterverse is exploding with news of Justice Thomas’s utterances. But some, such as my colleague Elie Mystal, think we all need to just calm down.

I fall somewhere in the middle. As an Article III groupie, I was initially thrilled to hear about Justice Thomas breaking his silence. But when I saw the official transcript, which reduced CT’s comments to four little words, my enthusiasm waned a bit. (Of course, when the audio recording in Boyer goes up at the end of this week, I’ll check it out to see what I can glean.)

Let’s also keep in mind: Justice Thomas may have spoken, but he did not ask a question of counsel, the key activity of justices during argument. So it’s still fair to say that CT hasn’t asked a question at oral argument in almost seven years.

How long will we have to wait for that to happen? I bet his wife wouldn’t go seven years without grilling counsel.

UPDATE (4:00 PM): In addition, as noted by Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.), Justice Thomas has spoken from the bench in the course of reading opinion summaries on hand-down days.

UPDATE (1/18/2013, 4:30 PM): The audio is now available (via Non-Sequiturs), but it’s not very enlightening. Check it out here, around the 41-minute mark.

Boyer v. Louisiana: Oral Argument Transcript [U.S. Supreme Court]
Did Justice Thomas Speak At Oral Argument? [Josh Blackman’s Blog]
No Argument: Thomas Keeps 5-Year Silence [New York Times]
Justice Clarence Thomas seems bored. Why doesn’t he run for president? [Washington Post]

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