Boston University Law Professor Jay D. Wexler conducted a study of the relative funniness of U.S. Supreme Court Justices. His results were published in The Green Bag and reported in the New York Times.
Wexler’s methodology was to count and tabulate the insertions of “[Laughter]” in transcripts of oral arguments during the 2004 term, when argument transcripts began including the Justices’ names. The results include the conclusion that Justice Antonin Scalia is the Chief Comedian on the High Court, nineteen times funnier than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Scalia, the study showed, is good for at least one laugh per oral argument. On the other hand, Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks during oral arguments, received no laughs.
As the New York Times article pointed out, the baseline for laughter in the solemn Supreme Court is fairly low. It’s not likely the same comments would generate guffaws on Comedy Central.
Here are some Supreme Court rib-ticklers quoted in the New York Times article:
[After a lightbulb exploded in the courtroom:]”It’s a trick they play on new chief justices all the time,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who joined the court that month, said of the explosion.
“Happy Halloween,” Justice Scalia retorted.
And then, the kicker. “We’re even more in the dark now than before,” Chief Justice Roberts said.
On the other hand, in a January argument in a statute-of-limitations case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy made an amusing observation about the absurdity of modern life.
“Recently I lost my luggage,” Justice Kennedy said. “I had to go to the lost and found at the airline, and the lady said has my plane landed yet.”
That’s gold. Let’s see a sitcom based on the madcap lives of U.S. Supreme Court Justices.
— Adam Liptak, So, Guy Walks Up to the Bar, and Scalia Says …, N.Y. Times, Dec. 31, 2005.