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Justice Thomas Finally Speaks in Sixth Amendment Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Supreme Court hosted a Sixth Amendment extravaganza Monday. The day started with Alleyne v. U.S., reconsidering the Court's 2002 Harris v. U.S. ruling that the Constitution does not require facts which increase a mandatory minimum sentence to be determined by a jury, and ended with a speedy trial debate in Boyer v. Louisiana.

Oh yeah. And Justice Clarence Thomas finally spoke. No big deal.

Let's discuss the long-term constitutional implications before we get to the four words that shook the world.

In 2000, the Court held in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum -- other than the fact of a prior conviction -- must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In Harris, the Court upheld the authority of a judge to find by a preponderance of the evidence the facts necessary to support a mandatory minimum sentence.

For years, Justice Thomas has been arguing that there should be no difference between finding facts to support a sentence beyond a maximum, and finding facts that will push a sentence above a minimum because the convicted individual is exposed to greater punishment than is otherwise prescribed either way, SCOTUSblog reports. It seems that Justice Thomas may have finally worn his colleagues down as a "fairly solid nucleus" at least seemed willing to re-think the Harris precedent.

Alas, today's Thomas quip wasn't a expression of satisfaction that he might once again be part of a majority decision. Instead, it was directed to the competence of Ivy League law school graduates.

In the second argument of the day, Boyer v. Louisiana, the Court took up the issue of whether a state should be penalized in a speedy trial analysis for delaying a criminal trial because it doesn't have the funds to pay for the indigent defendant's counsel. In this case, the state was Louisiana and the indigent defendant was Jonathan Edward Boyer.

While discussing the competence of the lawyers that ultimately represented Boyer, Justice Antonin Scalia brought up the fact that two of Boyer's lawyers attended Ivy League law schools: Harvard and Yale. Justice Thomas, who seemed to be making a joke about Yale Law School, suggested "Yale degree could mean lawyer is incompetent, not competent, capital trial counsel," SCOTUSblog tweeted. But as reports, the only Thomas quote that made it through the questioning crossfire and onto the record was, "Well -- he did not."

Justice Clarence Thomas' silence during oral arguments has taken on mythic proportions over the last six years, so it's a bit of a letdown when he finally speaks, and only four words make it on the record. Disappointment aside, Thomas' decision to speak during Boyer at least draws attention to the oft-overlooked issue of how the justice system is impacted by money woes in cash-strapped states across the country.

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