Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Boyer v. Louisiana, a case that presented questions about the rights of criminal defendants, including the rights to counsel and a speedy trial. See generally here. Whether the case will be of great lasting significance remains to be seen, as the Court will not issue its decision for some weeks. It already has drawn significant attention from Court-watchers, though, for reasons entirely collateral to the merits of the case.
As most people know, Justice Clarence Thomas is not frequently a vocal participant in oral arguments. In fact, that’s probably an understatement: before the Boyer argument, it nearly had been seven years since he last spoke in open court. Back in 2010, I wrote:
This week marks the fourth anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’ silence during Supreme Court oral arguments. The last time he questioned an attorney during oral arguments was in Holmes v. South Carolina, 547 U.S. 319 (2006), on February 22, 2006. Thomas had a solid reputation for sparse participation prior to the Holmes argument, and the four silent years since then have only served to solidify it. Observers, close and casual, are mixed on the significance of that silence, however.
Most people I encounter in casual conversation are immediately disparaging when it comes to Thomas, and particularly so regarding his silence. Some consider him a waste of space on the bench, and others suggest it is evidence that he is unqualified to serve on the Court, a charge that sometimes carries implications about his intelligence. Still others believe he simply is close-minded.
Perhaps I limited my survey of reactions to Thomas’ recent remark because of how I had seen him regarded in the past, or perhaps I’m just less attuned to Court-watchers today than I was three years ago (and I am), but I did not detect the same degree of disparagement I did before. More than anything, people seemed to see the happening as a sort of political novelty. Some actually called it “brilliant,” but that seems ridiculous in light of what Thomas actually “said.”
When Thomas’ name made its appearance in the transcript, the discussion at hand was about the qualifications of the criminal defendant’s counsel. Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether the defendant’s lead counsel was a Yale Law School graduate. After Scalia received an answer in the affirmative, the transcript records the following:
JUSTICE THOMAS: Well, there — see, he did not provide good counsel.
Everybody but Justice Sonia Sotomayor and possibly the arguing attorney seemed to be laughing at this point at what those in attendance agreed was a joke by Thomas, including Tom Goldstein, who wrote:
Most of the Justices were in a lighthearted mood today. There was a lot of banter between them. At one point, the questioning turned to whether the petitioner – a capital defendant – had “competent” counsel. Justice Scalia made the rhetorical point that his lawyer was impressive because she had gone to Yale. Chuckling, Justice Thomas interjected (as I heard it, imperfectly) that fact might make the lawyer “incompetent.”
Everyone who heard what he said recognized it was a joke. All the Justices laughed to one degree or another. So did the bar and gallery.
The most interesting part is that it isn’t even clear whether Thomas intended to speak into the microphone; some had noticed him passing a note to his neighbor, Scalia, and thought the remark may have been intended to be a private one.
In any event, the context to this remark is simple and should have been immediately apparent to anyone with even a general familiarity with Thomas. He attended Yale Law School himself, so at the very least, the joke was a self-depreciating one. That’s assuming he’s softened his views toward Yale. In the past, at least, he has not been especially proud of his time in New Haven because he believed he only was accepted there due to the school’s affirmative action policy, and he somewhat famously stuck a fifteen-cent price tag on his diploma as a signal of the value he placed on his Yale degree. Some commentators noted that Thomas in fact has been warming up to Yale more recently, but any deep analysis beyond this would not appear to yield anything of great significance.
Instead of moving straight along with things, though, I think this occasion does offer a good opportunity to remember that there were good reasons for Thomas to keep his silence. Beyond the personal ones, which he has clearly set forth in his autobiography and elsewhere, it is helpful to remember that the written briefs, as Thomas has said, are “far more important” than oral arguments, which, nine times out of ten, do not change his position. Naturally, there is reason to believe that he is not the only justice who takes this view, even if he is the only one who will say it out loud.
Silent Justice – My full remarks on the fourth anniversary of Justice Thomas’ silence at oral arguments