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article imageJustice Clarence Thomas breaks 7 years silence in court

By JohnThomas Didymus     Jan 15, 2013 in World
Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday broke nearly seven years of silence at Supreme Court oral arguments with a comment that court official transcript missed. After years of asking why Thomas keeps silent in court, everyone is now asking what did he say?
Supreme Court justices normally engage lawyers, throwing questions at them in rapid-fire during court oral arguments, but for the past seven years, Clarence Thomas has distinguished himself as the only one who sits silent never making comments or raising questions.
Whatever he said in court on Monday was presumably funny. According to The Washington Post, he appears to have made a humorous comment or a joke about lawyers trained either at Yale, his alma mater, or Harvard. But Thomas's exact words remain unconfirmed because at the moment he spoke, several other justices were speaking and laughing.
According to The Washington Post, the rare occasion of his comment during a Supreme Court oral argument passed so quickly that most did not even know that he spoke at all.
But it remains on record that Thomas, on Monday, spoke in court for the first time in seven years, and the fact has generated public interest, including on Twitter where speculations flourished about what he might have said.
The Huffington Post reports the case before the Supreme Court was Boyer v. Louisiana; and the question before the court was whether the delay in funding lawyers for an indigent man, Jonathan Boyer, facing the death penalty had violated his right to a speedy trial.
Jonathan Boyer’s lawyer, Richard Bourke, argued that because of the delay, Boyer lacked competent lawyers to handle his murder case and that the situation led to his facing the death penalty.
However, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that Boyer had competent lawyers. The Justice cited the fact that one of Boyer's lawyers went to Yale. According to The Washington Post, Scalia asked Carla S. Sigler, the Louisiana assistant district attorney in the case: "Didn’t one of them go to Yale?"
Sigler answered, "Yes."
Scalia asked: "And didn't another attend Harvard?"
Again, Sigler answered, "Yes."
Scalia said: "Son of a gun," drawing laughter and side comments from all the justices all of whom either attended Harvard or Yale.
Thomas then made a comment the transcript missed. What appeared on the transcript was: "Well — he did not — "
Whatever it was that Thomas said, the Louisiana attorney responded: "I would refute that, Justice Thomas."
According to The Washington Post:
Sotomayor, a Yale graduate, then asked Sigler what was enough to make a lawyer constitutionally adequate.
“Is it anybody who’s graduated from Harvard and Yale?”
More laughter.
“Or even just passed the bar?” Sotomayor asked.
“Or LSU law,” Sigler said, referring to Louisiana State University.
So, what did Thomas say?
The Huffigntpon Post reports that a reporter of the SCOTUSBlog who was in the courtroom, tweeted: "Thomas, J. (Yale, JD), speaks: funny at argument—Yale degree could mean lawyer is incompetent, not competent, capital trial counsel."
Billy Freeland, a law student who was also present, also tweeted: "Thomas might have cracked, 'Thats not effective counsel.' But hard to hear."
The Supreme Court is expected to release the audio of the oral argument on Friday and it may clarify the comment that the transcript missed.
The last time that Justice Thomas spoke at oral argument was on February 22, 2006. The New York Times reports that one of the most intriguing questions in Supreme court social circles is why Thomas has not asked a question during oral argument since Feb. 22, 2006.
His record stands because his comment on Monday was not a question.
Thomas has on a few occasions raised questions about the growing trend of rapid-fire questions during Supreme Court oral arguments. He reportedly said in a 2009 interview: "I think it’s an opportunity for the advocate, the lawyers, to fill in the blanks, to make their case. I think you should allow people to complete their answers and their thought, and to continue their conversation. I find that coherence that you get from a conversation far more helpful than the rapid-fire questions."
On another occasion at the University of Kentucky, he said: "Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen."
Clarence Thomas, black conservatives and the 'taint' of affirmative action
The consensus that his comment appears to have denigrated his alma mater Yale, comes from what is known about him from his biography. Although Yale law school is ranked first among law schools in the US, Thomas in his book "My Grandfather's Son," expressed the feeling that the value of his education at Yale was "tainted" by the school's affirmative action policy. He wrote: "As a symbol of my disillusionment, I peeled a fifteen-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."
Thomas belongs to an elite group of professional African-Americans who detest the official affirmative action policy as detracting from their personal hard work and abilities. Such African-American professionals, who typically identify as conservative, detest the suggestion that comes with having benefited from the affirmative action policy: That they got the chance for a good education or success through a policy that lowered the standards for them rather than by their personal merit.
The issue has drawn a lot controversy and recriminations between African-American liberals who think affirmative action benefited blacks and is therefore commendable and conservative African-Americans most of whom after becoming successful would like to think of their success as earned, even though, ironically, they cannot deny that they benefited from affirmative action policy that liberal activists fought for.
Cornel West, with the African-American studies department of Harvard University, comments on the widely held view that the attitude of conservative blacks is influenced by a personal (rather group-oriented) and unhealthy preoccupation with concern for acceptance by their white colleagues on equal grounds. Most liberal commenters believe the attitude breeds a psychological orientation in which the black professional views himself primarily from the perspective of his white colleagues. Rather than grow an autonomous self-image that breeds self-confidence and self-acceptance, he develops an apologetic attitude towards his disadvantaged ethnic and racial group that seeks detachment from his roots in the quest for assimilation and acceptance by the dominant group. West writes:
"But a few (black professionals) began to feel uncomfortable about how their white middle-class peers viewed them. Mobility by means of affirmative action breeds tenuous self respect and questionable peer acceptance for many middle-class blacks. The new black conservatives voiced these feelings in the form of attacks on affirmative action programs (ignoring the fact that they had achieved their positions by means of such programs).
"The importance of this quest for middle-class respectability based on merit rather than politics cannot be overestimated in the new black conservatism. The need of black conservatives to gain the respect of their white peers deeply shapes certain elements of their conservatism. In this regard, they simply want what most Americans want -- to be judged by the quality of their skills, not the color of their skin. But surprisingly, the black conservatives overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans on that basis."
Justice Clarence Thomas has served on the Supreme Court since 1991.
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