U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The justice's remark came during a jocular exchange over whether a defense attorney in a death-penalty case was qualified for the job because of her Ivy League degree.
Based on the transcript, it appears Thomas' four-word retort made his colleagues laugh, but no one's really sure what he said:
JUSTICE SCALIA: She was a graduate of Yale law school, wasn't she?
[Louisiana lawyer Carla] SIGLER: She's a very impressive attorney.
JUSTICE SCALIA: And another of his counsel, Mr. Singer—of the three that he had—he was a graduate of Harvard law school, wasn't he?
MS. SIGLER: Yes, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Son of a gun.
JUSTICE THOMAS: Well—he did not -
MS. SIGLER: I would refute that, Justice Thomas.
Some who were in the courtroom said Thomas made fun of his alma mater, Yale, in his comment, which wasn't fully recorded in the transcript by the court reporter. Billy Freeland, a law student who attended the oral argument, wrote that he thought Thomas said, "That's not effective counsel," joking that going to Yale would not qualify an attorney. But John Derosier, a Louisiana district attorney who works with Carla Sigler on the case, told Yahoo News that she is not sure what Thomas' exact words were.
"As soon as he started saying anything people started laughing and then it messed it up," Derosier said.
The full audio of the exchange will be released on Monday.
Thomas has had a strained relationship with Yale, refusing his permission to let the school hang his portrait in its halls and writing that it was a mistake for him to attend the school. He wrote in his memoir that the school's use of affirmative action in admissions meant that employers assumed he was not as qualified as his white peers when he graduated. He's said he keeps the diploma in his basement instead of hanging in his office.
The last time Thomas spoke was also in a death-penalty case, when he asked a defense attorney in 2006 about whether racial stereotypes affected the case. The New York Times wrote in 2011 that Thomas has said he is self-conscious about his Georgia accent and has also complained that it's tough to get a word in edgewise during oral arguments because of his eight chatty colleagues. Before 2006, he asked questions at oral arguments around 10 times a year, still a far lower rate than his colleagues, before lapsing into total silence after that last death-penalty case question.
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