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Clarence Thomas speaks, but does it break his silent streak?

January 14, 2013|By David G. Savage
  • Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in an aside during court arguments, spoke three words that were recorded in the official transcript. He maintains that judges should listen rather than interrupt the advocates, so his silence had become legendary.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in an aside during court arguments,… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON — It’s a slow news day at the U.S. Supreme Court when the biggest story is whether an overheard, offhand comment by Justice Clarence Thomas means he has broken his nearly seven-year streak of silence.

Thomas has never liked asking questions during the court’s oral arguments. He insists the justices should listen, rather than interrupt the advocates. He last asked a question on Feb. 22, 2006, and his silent streak has taken on a legendary significance.

But Thomas is not entirely quiet. He delivers an occasional opinion in the court, and he is often amused by remarks that take place during the arguments. He and Justice Stephen Breyer frequently exchange hearty laughs over some comment. 

On Monday morning, however, he spoke up as others were discussing whether a Yale Law School graduate is qualified to defend a murder defendant in Louisiana. Thomas has had a rather sour relationship with Yale, his alma mater.

At issue was whether the state of Louisiana had failed to provide competent lawyers to Jonathan Boyer, who had spent seven years in jail awaiting trial.

Justice Antonin Scalia, taking the state’s side, said Boyer's lawyers certainly appeared qualified.

“She was a graduate of Yale Law School, wasn’t she?” asked Scalia.

Yes, she is a “very impressive attorney,” replied Carla Sigler, an assistant district attorney from Lake Charles, La.

“And another of his counsel, he was a graduate of Harvard Law School,” Scalia continued. “Son of a gun,” he added.

“Well, he did not…” Thomas said, his words mostly drowned out by cross talk.

“I would refute that, Justice Thomas,” Sigler replied, apparently defending the view that a Yale or Harvard law degree is solid proof the attorney is minimally competent.

Now, it may take a higher authority to decide whether Thomas’ silent streak survives. He did not ask a question during Monday’s argument, so his streak continues if that is the measure. But he did utter a comment that was picked up by the microphone and recorded on the official transcript. If that liberal and permissive standard is the guide, the streak has ended after six years and 10 months.


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