Supreme Court Mysteries and Minutiae, Revealed

NPR's Scott Simon talks with writer and editor A.J. Jacobs — who has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica — about Supreme Court trivia.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

As Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito makes the rounds of Capitol Hill before his confirmation hearings in January, we thought it was a good time to check in with know-it-all A.J. Jacobs, who's read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and can't wait to tell you about it. Actually, it's A.J. who checks with us, and somehow charmed his way past our security guards in our New York bureau.

Thanks very much for being back with us, A.J.

Mr. A.J. JACOBS (Esquire Magazine; Author): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Some of the miscellany you have, the salaries Supreme Court justices earn are not impressive.

Mr. JACOBS: Well, it's not so bad, $199,000 a year, and that's not counting the endorsement deals, so they get a lot that way.

SIMON: A justice usually has four clerks, but you say that Chief Justice Rehnquist had only three?

Mr. JACOBS: Yes, and he claimed the reason was that he wanted the proper number for a doubles tennis game, meaning Rehnquist plus the three clerks. And speaking of four...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. JACOBS: ...he also added four gold stripes to the sleeves of his robe after seeing a costume in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. So I guess we're lucky he didn't see "The Lion King" or...

SIMON: Listen, President Tyler nominated a lot of people who didn't get confirmed, didn't he? A record number?

Mr. JACOBS: That's right. Right. Bush has one failed nomination so far but he's got a ways to go before he catches up with poor President Tyler, who had eight failed nomination bids that were blocked by the Senate. And even more remarkably, he nominated one man, a guy named Ruben Walworth, three separate times, only to have him fail each time.

SIMON: What was wrong with Ruben Walworth? Any idea?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, I don't think it was Ruben; I think it was Tyler. The Senate really hated Tyler.

SIMON: What do you think is the strangest Supreme Court decision from any Supreme Court anywhere that you've been able to research?

Mr. JACOBS: Well, this one was the oddest trial I read about in the encyclopedia. It wasn't from America, but it was from ancient Greece, and it was the trial of a famous prostitute named Phyrne--P-H-Y-R-N-E--and she was charged with blasphemy, and things were not going well for her. It looked like she was going to be convicted. So as the encyclopedia says so delicately, she tore her dress and displayed her bosom, which so moved the jury they acquitted her. So it was the girl-gone-wild defense.

SIMON: A.J., it's always instructive to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. JACOBS: Well, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Esquire magazine's A.J. Jacobs. He's the author of "The Know-It-All: One Man's Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." Just in time for the holidays, it's out in paperback. I'm told it's on the best-seller list now, A.J.?

Mr. JACOBS: That is true. And I know you have a hardcover, but you might want to buy a paperback to fill out your collection.

SIMON: I didn't even want the hardcover, but you sent it to us, so--all right. The paperback's becoming a little bit more reasonable. Nice talking to you, A.J.

Mr. JACOBS: Nice talking to you.

SIMON: Twenty-two minutes before the hour.

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