Breaking nearly seven years of silence on the bench, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke during oral argument in Boyer v. Louisiana yesterday. Unfortunately, the transcript of the proceedings missed the exact quip. But according to Tom Goldstein, Justice Thomas made a joke about the questionable competence of a Yale Law graduate.

If he had gone another month, Justice Thomas would have completed a seven year streak of silence on the bench. His last comment during oral argument was on February 22, 2006.

Thomas believes that the frequent questioning from other judges is simply unnecessary. “You don’t have to ask all those questions to judge properly,” the Justice told students in 2007. And what if the Supreme Court’s level of debate happened in other professions? Justice Thomas doesn’t think people would care for it:

Suppose you’re undergoing something very serious like surgery and the doctors started a practice of conducting seminars while in the operating room, debating each other about certain procedures and whether or not this procedure is this way or that way. You really didn’t go in there to have a debate about gallbladder surgery. You actually went in to have a procedure done. We are judges. This is the last court in a long line in our system. We are there to decide cases, not to engage in seminar discussions. Now, each of us has a different way of thinking about things. Some people like to talk it out. Some people enjoy the questioning and the back and forth. Some people think that if they listen deeply and hear the people who are presenting their arguments, they might hear something that’s not already in several hundred pages of records.

After Justice Thomas’ comment, Justice Sotomayor turned the discussion back to the point: what is effective counsel. But not before earning her own laughter from the gallery by asking if constitutionally adequate counsel is “anybody who’s graduated from Harvard and Yale.”


  1. Preface — not picking on you, Josh.

    I, like Gideon and Greenfield, wish that the news coverage of this case focused more on the unbelievable underlying facts, rather than a stupid offhanded quip by a Justice.

    To wit:

  2. Terry.A says:

    But ti be fair to Josh that ‘quip’ attention from us both! A British business barrister and you presumably an American attorney!

  3. All pics of Justice Thomas should include quote bubbles. Especially those in posts discussing his utterances.

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