Which Supreme Court Justice Cracks The Most Jokes?

New research examines the sense of humor belonging to Supreme Court justices. According to legal consultant Ryan Malphurs' research, Justice Scalia cracked the most jokes. His research appears in the Communication Law Review.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In all of its articles and amendments, the Constitution does not specifically authorize Supreme Court justices to tell jokes on the bench.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

But it doesn't forbid humor either, and some justices have apparently taken a generous reading of our founding law.

INSKEEP: In case after case, the justices hold oral arguments, sparring with lawyers and with each other, and Ryan Malphurs studied those arguments in search of witty remarks.

MONTAGNE: He published his findings as a dissertation at Texas A and M.

Mr. RYAN MALPHURS (Attorney): The name the study is "People Did Sometimes Stick Things Down My Underwear."

INSKEEP: That title comes from an actual remark by Justice Stephen Breyer in 2009. The court was hearing arguments in a case where a teenage girl was strip-searched for drugs. Justice Breyer was attempting to understand the circumstances of the search and his comments did not come out quite right.

Justice STEPHEN BREYER (U.S. Supreme Court): You know, we did take off our clothes once a day - we changed for gym. OK? And in my experience too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear. Well, not my underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Malphurs studied all of the notations of laughter that were entered into the court record during the 2006-2007 term.

Mr. MALPHURS: They're very quick-witted and they enjoy the intellectual quip occasionally.

INSKEEP: Occasionally. He found 131 instances in which laughter followed a comment from the bench.

MONTAGNE: Some were unintentional. Before becoming a justice, Elena Kagan appeared before the court and mistakenly called Antonin Scalia Mr. Chief Justice. The real chief justice, John Roberts, responded.

Justice ELENA KAGAN (U.S. Supreme Court): Mr. Chief - excuse me, Justice Scalia, I didn't mean to promote you quite so quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court): Thanks for thinking it was a promotion.

INSKEEP: According to the dissertation, Justice Scalia cracked the most jokes. Let's hear an exchange from 2005 in which a light bulb in the courtroom blew out. First, you're going to hear Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and then Justices Scalia and Roberts.

Justice RUTH BADER GINSBURG (U.S. Supreme Court): And it's only fair that your adversary should be able to...

(Soundbite of noise)

Justice ANTONIN SCALIA (U.S. Supreme Court): Light bulb went out.

Justice ROBERTS: It's a trick they play on new chief justices all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice SCALIA: Happy Halloween.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice GINSBURG: That's the idea.

Justice ROBERTS: Take your time.

Justice SCALIA: We're even more in the dark now than before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Supreme Court humor from which there is no appeal.

INSKEEP: Ryan Malphurs' study in the current issue of the Communication Law Review. It's based on his dissertation.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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