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The High Court

Supremely funny: Study covers court's penchant for laughter

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By Robert Barnes Robert Barnes
Monday, January 17, 2011

Dear lawyers: Supreme Court justices are not laughing at you. They are laughing with you.

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Yes, they are your superiors in every way. But a new study of laughter during the court's oral arguments finds that the comments from the justices that draw chuckles and guffaws are not aimed at ridiculing the advocates standing before them.

Indeed, twice as often, such comments are directed at the justices themselves - even the bons mots tossed from Justice Antonin Scalia, identified in the new study as both the funniest and grouchiest of the nine.

"Their laughter," wrote author Ryan Malphurs, "was more respectful and good natured than aggressive and hostile."

The very idea of laughter at the Supreme Court seems an oxymoron; the court is nothing if not gravely, stiflingly serious.

But laughter frequently marks the proceedings, perking up those who have grown drowsy during interminable discussions of subsections of federal law and altering the dynamics of the courtroom.

Still, nothing is more perishable than what passes for humor at the court. You really have to have been there. To wit, from the transcripts:

Justice Breyer: So you're saying that if the government has the most amazing, let's - I'm trying to think of something more amazing than what I just thought of."

[Laughter.]

Those notations of "[Laughter]" have now formed the basis of two studies of the court. In 2005, Boston University law professor Jay Wexler counted the number of times "[Laughter]" was noted in the court's transcripts, attributed the funny to whichever justice's comments preceded it, and declared Scalia the court's funniest justice.

A particularly clever writer on a particularly slow news day - New Year's Eve 2005 - brought Wexler fame by getting his study on the front page of the New York Times.

Malphurs has built upon what Wexler has jokingly described on his blog as his "Nobel Prize-winning monograph" by attempting to categorize the laughter-inducing comments.


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