02-19-2017  10:50 am      •     

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It was just a few words and a joke at that. But Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke his seven-year long silence on Monday when he spoke at oral arguments.

He made fun of lawyers from Yale, his law school alma mater.

Thomas has become known for rarely commenting on cases from the bench, another reflection of the complex and often misunderstood personality of the court's only African-American jurist.

On Monday, the justices were hearing an argument about the state of Louisiana's delay in paying for counsel for a death penalty defendant. Should that count against the state for the purposes of the right to a speedy trial?

A lawyer for the state was making the case for the inmate's appointed counsel, saying the woman was "more than qualified" and "very impressive."

"She was graduate of Yale Law School, wasn't she?" said Justice Antonin Scalia in apparent support, noting another member of the legal team went to Harvard.

The next words were hard to hear in the back-and-forth between the justices. But Thomas made a joke about the competence of Yale lawyers when compared to their Harvard colleagues, according to two witnesses.

Six members of the current high court attended Harvard Law School. Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor attend Yale.

The official transcript released by the court does not capture the flavor of the colorful exchange. But the lawyer arguing before the court was apparently not pleased.

"I would refute that, Justice Thomas," said Carla Sigler, the assistant district attorney in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The rest of the time, Thomas kept his own counsel as he is known to do.

"One thing I've demonstrated often in 16 years is you can do this job without asking a single question," he recalled in a speech five years ago.

Written opinions remain the main way the court expresses itself. But the current court is known as a "hot bench" for the busy back-and-forth rhetorical scrum during arguments.

Eight of the justices compete for time to make their questions and views known.

Thomas does occasionally speak from the bench when announcing opinions he has written, but before arguments commence.

Off the bench in friendly audiences, he can be gregarious, inquisitive and often self-reflective. He has a booming voice, and his hearty laugh is easily recognizable.

Some scholars have said Thomas' aversion to talking has reached epic heights.

A study of transcripts by Timothy Johnson of the University of Minnesota found in the past four decades, no justice besides Thomas had failed to speak at least once during an entire 12-month term.

The last time he spoke was February 22, 2006, during a capital appeal.

 

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