December 30, 2005
The Roberts Court: Early Returns
Posted by Gordon Smith

Law professors are fond of referring to the Supreme Court by the name of the Chief Justice, then attempting to find some distinguishing features by which they can caricature the Court. Here's one early possibility for the Roberts Court: joviality. Following up on the work of Boston University law professor Jay Wexler -- who counted  "[laughter]" notations in transcripts of the Supreme Court's oral arguments -- the New York Times compared laughter in this term with last term:

The mood under Chief Justice Roberts has brightened, the analysis found, with the average number of justice-generated laughs per argument rising to 2.9 from 2.6 the previous term.

In the current term, the Times analysis found, there has also been movement in the funniness-of-individual-justices department. Justice Breyer has taken the lead, at 28 laughs, edging out Justice Scalia, with 25. They also tied in the largest-number-of-jokes-in-a-single-argument category, each squeezing five into a single hour.

Chief Justice Roberts made a strong early showing, coming in third, with 13.

Of course, laughter in the Court probably says more about which justices think they are funny than about how funny they actually are. If a justice makes an attempt at humor, people laugh. It's one of the prerogatives of power.

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