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For first time in nearly seven years, Justice Clarence Thomas talks during court arguments

Jim Young / Reuters file

Justice Clarence Thomas, shown in a 2009 picture, on Monday spoke to a lawyer presenting a case during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Clarence Thomas broke nearly seven years of silence during oral arguments on the Supreme Court on Monday.


The last time the famously reserved Thomas spoke up, George W. Bush was president, the iPhone was nothing but an internet rumor, and the U.S. economy seemingly had nowhere to go but up. But just before noon on Monday, Thomas uttered what appeared to be a lawyer joke.


During arguments in the Sixth Amendment case Boyer v. Louisiana, the justices were discussing the qualifications of the plaintiff’s counsel when Justice Antonin Scalia asked the assistant district attorney of Louisiana whether another lawyer was a Yale Law School graduate. He then spoke of a different lawyer in the case who graduated from Harvard Law.

“Son of a gun!,” Scalia, a Harvard Law graduate himself, remarked.

According to the official court transcript, Thomas then cut in.

After remaining silent for nearly seven years during Supreme Court arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas appeared to have made a joke about Yale law degrees. Yale Law School is Thomas' alma mater. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

But because there was so much laughter in the court, the transcriber was only able to note part of Thomas’ remarks:

“JUSTICE THOMAS: Well – he did not – (Laughter.)”

The assistant DA replied: “I would refute that, Justice Thomas.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor followed up with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, requesting the lawyer to “define constitutionally adequate counsel.”

“Is it anybody who’s graduated from Harvard and Yale?” she asked to more laughter.

People present in court understood Justice Thomas’ brief remark to be a joke at the Yale alumni’s expense, according to the New York Times.

Justice Thomas is a graduate of Yale Law and has, in the past, criticized the school for its affirmative action policy. However, he has more recently been supportive of his alma mater, speaking there on at least two separate occasions since 2011.

The last time Justice Thomas asked a question during oral arguments was on Feb. 22, 2006 in Holmes v. South Carolina, a due process case in which the high court unanimously reversed a state supreme court’s decision that refused to let a convicted murderer introduce new evidence that claimed to prove a third party was guilty of a crime. 

Justice Thomas had said in the past that he simply did not like oral arguments and that is why he rarely asked questions.