Justice Thomas speaks
on Jan 14, 2013 at 10:02 pm
Wow, slow news day. On the Supreme Court front, the chatter has been over the sentence Justice Thomas interjected during today’s oral argument in Boyer v. Louisiana. Some of the commentary has devolved into psychoanalysis of the Justice’s supposed hostility towards Yale Law School. The real question to be asked is: can you take a joke?
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.”
In context, no one could think that the line was a genuine attack on Yale. Justice Thomas is a Yale graduate, and he was making a self-deprecating comment. The attorneys before the Court probably did not go to Yale (just given the odds, and given that one was Australian), and he was building them up at his own expense. (This is ordinarily the kind of thing one of the Justices would have whispered jokingly to another, but here Justice Thomas leaned into his microphone.)
The point was not a comment on the “competence” of lawyers generally, but their ability to handle the quite specialized role of trial counsel in a murder case. Yale famously tends to train lawyers more towards theory than practice. So he was just joking that, contrary to Justice Scalia’s suggestion, maybe you wouldn’t want someone just out of Yale to defend you in a murder case. That’s obviously right.
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.
So you say, “But that isn’t all that funny,” to which I respond, “Welcome to Supreme Court oral argument humor.” By those standards, it was pretty good.
As I said, I think the psychoanalysis of this one sentence is ridiculous. But if you were trying to divine anything from it, I suppose I’d say it shows the Justice’s greater comfort with his relationship with Yale, which is growing both generally and through Professor Akhil Amar individually. In my opinion, the joke was made in the voice of a person who was very comfortable associating himself with the institution.