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Clarence Thomas breaks years of silence on bench

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 5:34 AM EST, Tue January 15, 2013
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sit for their official photograph on October 8, 2010, at the Supreme Court. Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan.
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John G. Roberts
Antonin Scalia
Anthony M. Kennedy
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clarence Thomas known for remaining quiet during oral arguments
  • On Monday, he joked about lawyers educated at Yale, his alma mater
  • Current Supreme Court known as 'hot bench' for the rhetorical scrum during arguments

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.

2011: Thomas under fire again
Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013): The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal over California's Proposition 8 on jurisdictional grounds. The voter-approved ballot measure barring same-sex marriage was not defended by state officials, but rather a private party. This ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California to resume, but left open-ended the legal language of 35 other states barring same-sex marriage. Take a look at other important cases decided by the high court. Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013): The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal over California's Proposition 8 on jurisdictional grounds. The voter-approved ballot measure barring same-sex marriage was not defended by state officials, but rather a private party. This ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California to resume, but left open-ended the legal language of 35 other states barring same-sex marriage. Take a look at other important cases decided by the high court.
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Photos: Supreme Court cases that changed America Photos: Supreme Court cases that changed America

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

Sotomayor describes life journey in new memoir

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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