Supreme Court justices don’t have a reputation for comedy, but a new study finds they’re actually a lot funnier than everybody thought.
A new term began this week, with justices returning to work after a long summer break. Already, the court has signaled that this year’s term will be contentious as justices take up controversial cases that touch hot-button social issues on affirmative action, abortion and the separation of church and state.
The current crop of justices are some of the chattiest in history, rarely giving lawyers a chance to speak, and according to a new study, they are also some of the funniest.
For years, court stenographers have indicated when justices crack a joke by simply writing “[laughter]” into the transcript. Only, since 2004 have the justices been identified by name in the transcripts opening the door to tallying the number of laughs they each receive and giving researchers the opportunity to categorically define who is the funniest justice.
In 2005, John Roberts got a laugh when a light bulb in the court blew out, leading the chief justice to quip: “We’re even more in the dark now than before.” C
A team of researchers listened to the arguments from the entire 2011-2012 term, more than 80 hours of tape, and found that the judges were significantly funnier than the official transcript implied.
“We gathered substantially more, or 61 percent more, instances of humor,” wrote the authors of “Rhetoric and Discourse in Supreme Court Oral Arguments.”
The study counted “343 instances of humor,” compared to 213 in the official transcript.
The hands-down funniest justice, according to the survey, is Antonin Scalia, who received 136 laughs during the term, 64 percent more than the official transcripts suggested.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with just six jokes, is actually 200 percent funnier than the transcripts suggest, leading the study’s authors to call her a “A truly talented individual, aside from a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg could have had a career in stand-up comedy.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, who did not comment from the bench until 2013, when he did indeed get a snicker, scored a 0 in the survey.
The study found the conservative wing of the court funnier than the liberals, even with a silent Thomas. Conservatives racked up 207 laughs, or 41 per justice. Liberals trailed with 136 laughs – as many as Scalia got on his own – or 34 laughs per justice.