The Funniest Justice
posted by Nate Oman
For all of those law geeks who obsess over Supreme Court trivia, here is a new question: Who is the funniest justice? Well, the data has been carefully analyzed by Professor Jay Wexler in a new article in the Greenbag, and the answer is in. As summarized in a NYT article on the study:
Transcripts of oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court have long featured the notation “[laughter]” after a successful quip from a justice or lawyer. But until October 2004, justices were not identified by name, making it impossible to construct a reliable index of judicial wit.
That has now changed, and Jay D. Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, was quick to exploit the new data to analyze the relative funniness of the justices. His study, which covers the nine-month term that began that October, has just been published in a law journal called The Green Bag.
Justice Scalia was the funniest justice, at 77 “laughing episodes.” On average, he was good for slightly more than one laugh – 1.027, to be precise – per argument.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer was next, at 45 laughs. Justice Ginsburg produced but four laughs. Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks during arguments, gave rise to no laughter at all.
Of course, it is not clear that Scalia’s victory is evidence of humor and wit on any absolute scale. I found during law school that my sense of what was funny became seriously warped. I started finding even mild judicial humor uproariously funny, and would read sections of opinions to my speech-pathologist wife. For a while she would listen with an indulgent expression on her face, but eventually she gave me the news with the air of a woman telling a child the awful truth about Santa Claus. “Nate,” she said, “I don’t think that legal humor really counts as real humor.”