Justice Clarence Thomas broke his nearly seven-year silence at Supreme Court oral arguments Monday. But no one is sure exactly what he said.
Thomas seemed to be making a joke about lawyers trained at his alma mater, Yale Law School, or its rival, Harvard.
But several justices were speaking and laughing, and his exact words apparently are lost to history.
Of the many mysteries about life on the Supreme Court, the question of why Thomas has not asked a question at oral argument since Feb. 22, 2006, is one of the most enduring. Whatever his words, it was apparent he was not asking a question of counsel.
On many occasions, he has said he thinks nonstop questioning that marks the court has changed what he believes to be the purpose of oral arguments.
"I think it's an opportunity for the advocate, the lawyers, to fill in the blanks, to make their case," he told C-SPAN in 2009. "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."
Last spring, he told a University of Kentucky audience that "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."
None of his colleagues, share that view. They think lawyers make their case in briefs filed with the court, and oral arguments are the chance for justices to challenge lawyers' theories and make them respond to opponents' arguments.
Monday's case was from Louisiana. The question was whether years-long delays in funding lawyers for an indigent man facing the death penalty violated his right to a speedy trial.
Jonathan Boyer's lawyer, Richard Bourke said the delay meant Boyer did not have lawyers competent for a complicated murder case with prospect of the death penalty.
Justice Antonin Scalia, suggested Boyer had competent counsel. Didn't one go to Yale, he asked Carla Sigler, Louisiana assistant district attorney.
She did, Sigler said. Didn't another attend Harvard, he asked. Yes, Sigler said.
"Son of a gun," Scalia said.
All that's in the transcript is Thomas saying, "Well — he did not … "
It seems likely the rest of the sentence was along the lines of "have competent counsel." Sigler, smiling, replied: "I would refute that, Justice Thomas."