Clarence Thomas “Well, He Did Not”

The New York Times reports that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s first words on the bench in seven years were likely not used for sharp legal questions but, rather, to a crack a joke about Harvard Law School or maybe Yale, his alma mater.

According to the article:

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 Justice Thomas’s alma mater.

Justice 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 Justice Thomas spoke, for the first time since Feb. 22, 2006. It attributes these words to him, after a follow-up comment from Justice Scalia concerning a male graduate of Harvard Law School:

“Well — he did not — .”

The case, Boyer v. Louisiana, concerned a Louisiana inmate who is challenging his conviction on murder and armed robbery. The inmate apparently argued that his right to a speedy trial was delayed for because the state failed to fund adequate consul. Louisiana argues that the man had adequate counsel.

The court transcript is incomplete so we don’t yet know exactly what transpired on Monday, but it might have gone something like this (the real quotations, from the transcript, are in bold):

Louisiana prosecutor Carla S. Sigler: The inmate had adequate counsel. In fact, one of his lawyers went to law school at Yale. Another went to Harvard.

Justice Antonin Scalia: Son of a gun. I’d certainly think a Harvard Law School graduate could represent the defendant. As a graduate of one of the best law schools in the country, the state of Louisiana obviously believed the public defender would effectively represent his client.

Thomas: Well—he did not.

Sigler: I would refute that, Justice Thomas.

Sigler apparently earlier in the oral arguments characterized the public defender who went to Yale, Christine Lehmann, as “a very impressive attorney.” (This, note, makes it unlikely Thomas was talking about the Yale graduate specifically. Thomas said “he did not”; the Yalie was a woman.)

Thomas has long believed that attendance at a prestigious law school does not have much to do with whether or not someone is a good lawyer. He makes a concerted effort to hire his own clerks from mediocre law schools.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer