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Justice Clarence Thomas breaks years of silence

Makes rare public joke in courtroom

Justice Clarence Thomas spoke publically in court for the first time since Feb. 22, 2006.

European Pressphoto Agency

Justice Clarence Thomas spoke publically in court for the first time since Feb. 22, 2006.

WASHINGTON — Justice Clarence Thomas broke almost seven years of silence during Supreme Court arguments Monday, 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. It is Thomas’s alma mater.

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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 states, but people in the courtroom understood him to say that a law degree from Yale may actually be proof of incompetence.

The transcript indicates laughter in the courtroom after Thomas’s remark. 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.

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 he is self-conscious about the way he speaks and has recalled being teased about the dialect he grew up speaking in rural Georgia.

At other times, he has said 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.

During arguments in another case Monday, the justices seemed split on whether a jury or a judge should have the final say on facts that can trigger mandatory minimum sentences in criminal trials.

The justices heard arguments the case of Allen Alleyne, who was convicted of robbery and firearm possession in Richmond, Va.

The jury said Alleyne’s accomplice did not show a weapon, but the judge said he did, raising Alleyne’s minimum sentence from five to seven years on that charge.

Alleyne’s lawyers say the brandishing decision should have been the jury’s. The justices will rule later this summer.

Also Monday, the high court said it will not stop the federal government from claiming custody of a Rhode Island inmate who could face the death penalty if convicted of murder.

The high justices refused to hear an appeal from Jason Pleau and the state of Rhode Island.

Pleau is charged with killing a Woonsocket gas station manager in 2010.

Rhode Island has abolished the death penalty.

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