WASHINGTON — Around 11:45 Monday morning, Justice Clarence Thomas broke almost seven years of silence during Supreme Court arguments. But it was not entirely clear what he said.
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 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 official 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 —.’’ 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.
What follows in the transcript supports that view. First, there is a notation indicating laughter in the courtroom. The stray set of four words attributed to Thomas are in no sense a joke or 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 the justice had articulated a proposition capable of refutation. Sigler had said earlier that the Yale lawyer was ‘‘a very impressive attorney.’’
It is not unusual for Thomas to exchange banter with the members of the court who sit next to him, Justices Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer. But those communications are inaudible in the courtroom. This remark seemed meant for public consumption.
Thomas has offered various reasons for his general taciturnity. He has said, for instance, that he is self-conscious about the way he speaks and has recalled being teased about the dialect he grew up speaking in rural Georgia.
In his 2007 memoir, ‘‘My Grandfather’s Son,’’ he wrote that he never asked questions in college or law school and that he was intimidated by some of his fellow students.
At other times, he has said that he is silent out of simple courtesy. He has also complained about the difficulty of getting a word in edgewise on an exceptionally voluble bench. The garbled transcript offers some support for that final rationale.
The joke itself was lighthearted, and it was probably further proof of a recent warming trend between Thomas and Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1974.
In his memoir, Thomas wrote that he had ‘‘peeled a 15-cent price sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I'd made by going to Yale.’’
‘'I never did change my mind about its value,’’ he wrote in the book. For many years, he refused to return the law school. But Thomas visited it in 2011 and spoke to an alumni group in Washington last year.