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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas breaks seven-year silence

(CBS News) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, widely known as "the silent justice," has become legend for remaining largely silent on the bench during his time on the Supreme Court.

Thomas rarely speaks -- and it has been almost seven years since he asked a question from the bench.

On Monday, Justice Thomas broke his long silence, when he interrupted Justice Antonin Scalia, inquiring about whether Ivy League lawyers had properly represented a client.

The official court transcript only picked up four words of Thomas' remarks -- "well he did not" -- and according to CBS News' Jan Crawford, Thomas appeared to be suggesting that an Ivy League degree did not necessarily mean the lawyer was qualified.

The courtroom erupted in laughter at his remarks, perhaps knowing that Thomas has had a strained relationship with his alma mater, Yale Law School.

It was not a case-related question, but the 64-year-old justice's offhand remark was big news for court watchers. He has long said that the court should do a better job of listening to the lawyers presenting the cases, instead of interrupting them as some of his more vocal colleagues, like Scalia, often do.

Thomas' public silence dates back to long before his days on the court. In his memoir, he wrote that he did not like speaking up in college because he was self-conscious about his unusual southern Georgia dialect.

But in 2007, Thomas defended his choice to remain mum behind the bench on "60 Minutes," telling Steve Kroft that his silence was not due to insecurity or fear.

"Justice Marshall rarely asked questions. Justice Powell rarely asked questions. That's a personal preference. I certainly wouldn't do it to provide histrionics for the media gallery or for other people or for critics," Justice Thomas insisted. "Critics will always be critics," he added.

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CBS News' Jan Crawford reports that in her own conversations with the Supreme Court Justice, Thomas has been critical of his colleagues for talking too much and creating a courtroom environment similar to that of "Family Feud." Thomas told Crawford he prefers to speak through the written word, in his powerful opinions and dissents.

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