The Supreme Court's strong silent type has broken character. Justice Clarence Thomas went nearly seven years without making a peep during oral arguments, but today he just had to get in a jab at Yalies. This morning, the Twitter account of SCOTUS Blog—a site that follows the daily docket of our nation's highest court—broke news about Thomas ending his silent streak:
Thomas, J. (Yale, JD), speaks: funny at argument—Yale degree could mean lawyer is incompetent, not competent, capital trial counsel.— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) January 14, 2013
Justice Thomas delivered this quip while other justices were talking, so the court reporter missed the exact phrasing of what he said. The Supreme Court was hearing arguments on Alleyne v. United States—a case regarding criminal sentencing—when he uttered the joke. The Washington Post's Robert Barnes offers this account:
His comments came during questions about the qualifications of lawyers who had represented a Louisiana man in a murder case. Justice Antonin Scalia noted that one of the lawyers had attended Harvard and another had gone to Yale.
“Son of a gun,” Scalia said.
Thomas was among other justices — all of whom attended either Harvard or Yale — who either laughed or made side comments.
To understand why justice nerds are going nuts about Thomas' little side comment, you have to understand that this man holds the record for staying mum on the Supreme Court bench. "There is no record of any justice completing a single term ... without asking a question," NPR's Nina Totenberg once noted. "Indeed, scholars have calculated that the other eight justices ask on average 133 questions per hourlong session. But Thomas remains silent."
And to fully get Thomas' joke, you have to know that his scorn for Yale runs deep. He got his J.D. there in 1974, but has no fond memories of the school. In his autobiography My Grandfather's Son, Thomas writes that the school "tricked" him into attending, and he's kept his distance from alumni ever since graduation. He felt that white classmates treated him as a token affirmative action student, and he believes that his degree carries "the taint of racial preference." Describing his Yale days, he writes:
At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: You knew exactly where they were coming from. Not so the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.
Thomas last spoke during oral arguments in February 2006, piping up to comment on a rape case titled Holmes v. South Carolina. Thomas' points helped overturn the death penalty for Bobby Holmes.