Heh: Justice Clarence Thomas Breaks Courtroom Silence, Transcript Doesn't Understand Him

Posted: Jan 14, 2013 4:53 PM

Justice Clarence Thomas is known for his stalwart silence during Supreme Court hearings, but today, for the first time in seven years, he broke his silence -- and the transcript didn't even fully understand what he said. What's more, it appears he made a joke, but the official record doesn't contain the full sentence. The New York Times reports on the humorous moment in court, and the recordkeeping mix-up:

The justices were considering the qualifications of a death penalty defense lawyer in Louisiana, and Justice Antonin Scalia noted that she had graduated from Yale Law School, which is, by some measures, the best in the nation. It is also Justice Thomas’s alma mater.

Justice Thomas leaned into his microphone, and in the midst of a great deal of cross talk among the justices, cracked a joke. Or so it seemed to people in the courtroom.

The official transcript confirms that Justice Thomas spoke, for the first time since Feb 22, 2006. It attributes these words to him, after a follow-up comment from Justice Scalia concerning a male graduate of Harvard Law School: “Well – he did not —.” That is all the transcript recites.

Though the transcription is incomplete, people in the courtroom understood him to say that a law degree from Yale may actually be proof of incompetence.

The transcript then indicates laughter in the courtroom, and the attorney at the lectern responded with, "I would refute that, Justice Thomas," and saying something about the attorney in question being very competent. Apparently, however, the other justices drowned him out with chatter of their own. SCOTUSblog tweeted a more complete rendering of the comment, corroborating the Times' account:


Of course: when the famously silent Justice speaks, the record doesn't fully capture what he says. However, it's worth noting that he didn't ask a question -- that streak has still gone unbroken. Perhaps he'll be a bit more vocal in the coming year? Doubtful, if past is precedent -- especially since it's seems to be hard to get a word in edgewise with the other justices -- but it's fun to see his sense of humor in action.