Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Yesterday at the Court
For those of us who care deeply about Supreme Court oral argument humor, yesterday was the best day in the history of the world. As has been widely reported, Clarence Thomas spoke for the first time in seven years, telling a joke at the expense of Yale Law School. The key point here is that, although the joke was not itself captured on the official transcript, the "[laughter]" was. For the record, the official laugh line was:
JUSTICE THOMAS: "Well--he did not--"
Just to state the obvious here, Justice Thomas now has a 100% laughter to comment ratio at oral arguments over the past 7 years. In terms of raw statistics, then, this makes him funnier than Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Weird Al Yankovic combined.
It wasn't just Thomas getting laughs, though. In the first argument of the day, there were six laughlines, three by Justice Scalia alone. Six for a single argument is almost unheard of. I wasn't there, of course, but it sounds like the morning was more "Night Court" than "Supreme Court." Perhaps it was this night-club atmosphere that inspired Justice Thomas to tell his joke. Indeed, there were four laughs in the second argument--the audience even laughed once at something Justice Alito said, which is about as rare as someone laughing at an episode of "Don't Trust the B--in Apt. 23."
As the Court heads back to business this morning, one wonders whether some of the other justices might feel moved to follow Justice Thomas and break type. I predict that Justice Breyer shows up with one of those Steve Martin arrow through the head things on his giant dome, and that Justice Kagan, well known for her ventriloquism prowess,** poses her questions through a fancy dressed mouse hand puppet.
**Justice Kagan is not in fact known for her ventriloquism prowess
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My sense is that it is precisely the comedy-club atmosphere that has, in recent years, seemed more prevalent at the Court -- and the obvious ways that Court-watchers reward and praise those Justices who crack jokes and ask "questions" for entertainment value -- that largely explains Justice Thomas's lack of interest in the question-asking thing. I mean, I think he's said publicly that he believes it would be better if the Court proceeded in accord with past practice, and let the lawyers make their arguments, hasn't he? It's sad, to me, that so many students and lawyers have swallowed the "oooh, Justice Thomas doesn't ask questions because he's not as smart as the others" nonsense.
Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jan 15, 2013 10:32:20 AM
I think they should just embrace the comedy-club atmosphere and start serving drinks. And if I'm the next Clerk of the Court, I'm going to make that happen.
I do, however, agree with Rick that it's misguided to critique Justice Thomas for not asking questions at oral argument. I've previously defended him on this score here: http://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/03/the-sound-of-si.html
Posted by: Jay Wexler | Jan 15, 2013 10:42:16 AM
"Just to state the obvious here, Justice Thomas now has a 100% laughter to comment ratio at oral arguments over the past 7 years. In terms of raw statistics, then, this makes him funnier than Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Weird Al Yankovic combined."
This makes absolutely no sense. I understand the methodology of using a laugh rate rather than total laughs. What doesn't make sense is expressing how high Thomas's rate is by comparison to a combined rate of three other comics. The funniest in the group (CK) will have his rate brought down by the other two.
Further, your choice of Silverman and Yankovic makes little sense. Silverman just goes for formulaic shock value jokes, which become mundane very quickly, and is Yankovic even relevant any more?
This just goes to show that law professors understand humor just as poorly as they understand math.
On a more serious note though, when a gay marriage case goes before the Supreme Court, do you think the pro-gay marriage side would have a better chance of winning with their oral argument being made by (1) the top litigator of your choice, or (2) Louis CK?
Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 15, 2013 11:26:28 AM
"This just goes to show that law professors understand humor just as poorly as they understand math." Is that what this shows?
Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jan 15, 2013 11:30:39 AM
Wait, did somebody just imply that Weird Al Yankovic is no longer relevant?
Posted by: Jay Wexler | Jan 15, 2013 11:34:45 AM
Jay, I did in fact imply that. And you couldn't see it, but I dropped the mic after.
Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Jan 15, 2013 12:00:07 PM
Judge often tell jokes to entertain motions.
Posted by: Supremecourtjester | Jan 16, 2013 2:53:39 PM