Washington • One of the abiding mysteries at the Supreme Court is why Justice Clarence Thomas has failed to say a word in almost seven years of arguments. On Monday, when he finally broke his silence, the mystery was replaced by a riddle: Just what did Thomas say?
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 Thomas’ alma mater.
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 court transcript confirms that Thomas spoke, for the first time since Feb 22, 2006. It attributes these words to him, after a follow-up comment from Scalia concerning a male graduate of Harvard Law School: “Well — he did not —.”
Although the transcription is incomplete, some people in the courtroom understood him to say, in a joshing tone, that a law degree from Yale could actually be proof of incompetence or ineffectiveness. Others thought that he might have been referring to Harvard.
What follows in the transcript supports the view that Thomas made an actual point. First, there is a notation indicating laughter in the courtroom. The stray words attributed to Thomas are in no sense a joke or any other occasion for laughter.
And the lawyer at the lectern, a Louisiana prosecutor named Carla S. Sigler, responded, “I would refute that, Justice Thomas,” indicating that he had articulated a proposition capable of refutation.
Sigler had earlier said that the Yale lawyer, Christine Lehmann, was “a very impressive attorney.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another Yale Law graduate, pressed Sigler about whether a fancy degree by itself proved anything.
“Counsel,” she said, “do you want to define constitutionally adequate counsel? Is it anybody who’s graduated from Harvard and Yale?”
There was more laughter.
“Or even just passed the bar?” Sigler responded with a cryptic remark about her own alma mater, Louisiana State University. “Or LSU Law,” she said.
A call to Sigler was returned by her boss, John F. DeRosier, the district attorney in Lake Charles, La .
“I’m not sure Carla had a clear earshot of precisely what he said,” DeRosier said of Thomas. “It appeared lighthearted.”