Best Joke by a Supreme Court Justice

FACT: Chief Justice John Roberts said in a speech on Friday that he will increase the number of cases heard by the Supreme Court from two a day to three during the coming term beginning in October, according to an AP account of his speech. Roberts says that if the busier fall schedule lightens the caseload by next spring, he may be able to cut back then. 

ANALYSIS: When Roberts became Chief Justice in 2005, some Court observers wondered whether the younger Chief would begin burdening his colleagues with more work, increasing the Court’s caseload by granting more cases.  Now it looks like he may attack the issue in a slightly different way, hoping to cut a swath through the caseload issue with a burst of activity but not necessarily more cases overall.

Friday, the affable Roberts pointed out that the increase to three arguments each court day might put a strain on the Solicitor General’s Office, since it saddles the burden of arguing the federal government’s side in most of the cases.  But Roberts also pointed out that it’ll mean more work for the journalists who cover the Court – a small but tenacious crowd who like to pass judgment on the Court and its performance regularly.  Roberts then joked: “After careful reflection, I decided I didn’t care.”

Okay, that cracked me up – I must be starved for good legal humor (liability of being married to a lawyer).  You just don’t see much good humor out of the Supreme Court.  There’s a compendium of Court jokes from the late-night talkshows (Letterman, Leno, The Daily Show, etc.) over on About.com’s political humor section, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman.  The late Chief Justice Rehnquist was remembered at his memorial service in 2005 for “an insatiable love of jokes,” but the evidence seems pretty scant.

Yet in modern times there’s actually a numbers-based approach to determining the funniest justice. Since 2004, Supreme Court transcripts of oral arguments have included the justices’ names – previously they were unattributed to a particular individual justice.  This change meant that the notation, “[Laughter],” in the transcript, could also be attributed to the particular wit who made the courtroom crowd laugh. After just one year of that data, Boston University law professor Jay Wexler compiled the list and found that the funniest justice that term was: Antonin Scalia!  Stephen Breyer came in second, according to a funny New York Times story about the study (“So, Guy Walks Up to the Bar, and Scalia Says… “)

Wexler’s still counting; six months ago he updated his findings since two more terms had passed, and reported that Scalia was still the funniest, Breyer still the second banana, but the new guy (Roberts) had zoomed up to third place.

[Sometimes] it’s simply impossible to tell from reading the transcript why anyone would have laughed at the Justice’s words. In such cases, one can only presume that the Justice was making a funny face when talking, or perhaps spoke with a wooden ventriloquist’s dummy or other funny-looking hand puppet.” – Prof. Jay Wexler

Oh – one other finding – according to Wexler, the Court Reporter now feels free to moderate the terminology. The transcripts now sometimes refer to “some laughter” or “a little laughter.”  Everyone’s a critic!

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