By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - The silence is broken.
For the first time in nearly seven years, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday spoke to a lawyer presenting a case during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
While his utterance was not in the form of a question and consisted of a mere four words, it breaks a silence dating to Feb. 22, 2006, during an argument over the admission of forensic evidence in a South Carolina death penalty case.
Thomas's silence stands out because the other eight justices are active questioners during the hourlong oral arguments. The end of that silence caused a stir among reporters, who sit together in the courtroom.
Since joining the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas, 64, has given many reasons for his lack of questions.
These have included a preference for listening, developed after classmates during his childhood made fun of a dialect he spoke when growing up in Savannah, Georgia.
Thomas also has suggested that his colleagues ask too many questions, making it hard for lawyers to make their cases.
The case that broke the silence was Boyer v. Louisiana. Jonathan Boyer sought to overturn his murder conviction on the ground that Louisiana took seven years to try him while he sat in jail, violating his constitutional right to a speedy trial.
One issue was whether Boyer's court-appointed lawyers early in the proceedings were qualified to represent him. The justices focused on two: Stephen Singer, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and Christine Lehman, a graduate of Yale Law School.
"She was a graduate of Yale Law School, wasn't she?" Justice Antonin Scalia, a Harvard Law graduate, asked Carla Sigler, a lawyer representing Louisiana, according to an unofficial transcript.
"She's a very impressive attorney," Sigler responded.
"And another of his counsel, Mr. Singer - of the three that he had - he was a graduate of Harvard Law School, wasn't he?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Son of a gun."
Thomas, a Yale Law graduate, then chimed in. He appeared to hint, facetiously, that Singer's law school pedigree didn't guarantee quality representation for his client.
"Well - he did not," Thomas said as laughter enveloped the courtroom and some justices appeared to be making side comments.
Sigler then gently suggested that it probably did not make a difference to Boyer's defense which law school Singer attended.
"I would refute that, Justice Thomas," she said. (Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)