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By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke his nearly seven-year silence during oral arguments last week, there was much speculation about what exactly he said. Just four cryptic words appeared in the court's unofficial transcript.
Now it can be told: It was nine words and apparently a joke.
The court on Wednesday issued a revised transcript that suggests Thomas, a graduate of Yale Law School, uttered a light-hearted jest about a lawyer who once attended his alma mater's archrival, Harvard.
At the Jan. 14 argument, the justices considered the qualifications of two court-appointed lawyers, one from Harvard and one from Yale, who had once represented a Louisiana death penalty defendant. It was a side issue as the court weighed whether the defendant was denied a speedy trial.
The revised transcript shows that the lawyer representing Louisiana, Carla Sigler, called the Yale-educated lawyer a "very impressive attorney" and the Harvard-educated lawyer "very exceptional."
That prompted Thomas to weigh in. "Well, there - see he did not provide good counsel," he said.
The original transcript had Thomas saying "Well - he did not" but it was hard to make out the words because there was much courtroom laughter and cross-talk among the justices.
Sigler seemed to hear what was said. "I would refute that, Justice Thomas," she gently responded. Later, she said that she went to Harvard too.
All nine current justices attended or graduated from either Harvard or Yale law school.
Kathy Arberg, a court spokeswoman, said the company that produces the transcripts routinely reviews their contents, including by checking audio recordings of the oral arguments.
"Presumably the revision was the result of its own standard procedures," she said.
Stephen Singer, the Harvard lawyer being discussed by the justices, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thomas has long been critical of Yale Law School, having written in his memoir of once affixing a 15-cent price sticker to his 1974 diploma and storing it in his basement. In recent months he has taken steps toward reconciliation.
He has in the past given various reasons for his quietness on the bench, including a preference for listening and the volubility of his colleagues.
Regardless, the revised transcript shows that Thomas did not ask a question. He has not asked one from the bench since a Feb. 22, 2006, oral argument. That streak continues. (Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)