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Supreme Court Justices, law professor play with words

Tuesday, January 12, 2010; A03

Supreme Court justices deal in words, and they are always on the lookout for new ones.

University of Michigan law professor Richard D. Friedman discovered that Monday when he answered a question from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but added that it was "entirely orthogonal" to the argument he was making in Briscoe v. Virginia.

Friedman attempted to move on, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stopped him.

"I'm sorry," Roberts said. "Entirely what?"

"Orthogonal," Friedman repeated, and then defined the word: "Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant."

"Oh," Roberts replied.

Friedman again tried to continue, but he had caught the interest of Justice Antonin Scalia, who considers himself the court's wordsmith. Scalia recently criticized a lawyer for using "choate" to mean the opposite of "inchoate," a word that has created a debate in the dictionary world.

"What was that adjective?" Scalia asked Monday. "I liked that."

"Orthogonal," Friedman said.

"Orthogonal," Roberts said.

"Orthogonal," Scalia said. "Ooh."

Friedman seemed to start to regret the whole thing, saying the use of the word was "a bit of professorship creeping in, I suppose," but Scalia was happy.

"I think we should use that in the opinion," he said.

"Or the dissent," added Roberts, who in this case was in rare disagreement with Scalia.

-- Robert Barnes

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