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('Laughter') in the Court

January 01, 2006|From Associated Press

BOSTON — Court jesters they're not. But the justices on the nation's highest court do draw laughs during oral arguments, and a new study finds that Antonin Scalia brings in the most chuckles from the bench.

Boston University law professor Jay D. Wexler's study shows Scalia easily out-quipped the other eight justices, instigating 77 "laughing episodes" during oral arguments in the nine-month Supreme Court term that began in October 2004.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer came in second, with 45 laughs. Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks in court, was the only justice without a single snicker.

"I don't pretend that this is a very serious study," Wexler said Saturday. "I just thought it would be fun and perhaps a bit enlightening."

He reviewed the transcripts of 75 Supreme Court oral arguments and counted how many times each justice provoked enough audience reaction to make the court reporter write a ("laughter") notation in the text.

The study, published in December in the law journal the Green Bag, has its flaws, Wexler conceded -- including that the court reporters may be unreliable or biased. The ("laughter") notation also doesn't distinguish between "the genuine laughter brought about by truly funny or clever humor and the anxious kind of laughter that arises when one feels nervous or uncomfortable or just plain scared for the nation's future," Wexler wrote.

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