Laughs at the Supreme Court

The groundwork for research into the occurrence of laughter at the US Supreme Court was initially provided by Professor Jay D. Wexler (of Boston University School of Law) in his 2005 article for Green Bag (second series, Volume 9, number 1) entitled : Laugh Track. The professor had made the decision to quantify the laughter content because :

“In the 2004–2005 term […] for the first time, the Court Reporter started revealing the names of the speaking Justices. Because the Court Reporter also indicates, with the notation ‘(Laughter),’ when the courtroom has reached a certain level of mirth, it is now possible to determine how many times during the term any particular Justice’s comments induced a substantial amount of laughter.”

The professor searched the records and kept track of the number of times that each Justice caused ‘hoots and snickers’ to erupt in the courtroom. He then calculated each Justice’s ‘Laughter Episodes Instigated Per Argument Average’ (LEIPAA), representing the total number of laughter episodes instigated over the term divided by the number of oral arguments attended over the course of the term. The data revealed the following results :

“Justice Scalia won the competition by a landslide, instigating 77 laughing episodes, while Justice Thomas instigated zero laughing episodes, putting him all alone in last place among the Justices.”

A year on, the Supreme Court Laughter Research Project was considerably extended by Jason Wojciechowski, in his paper for the Social Science Research Network : [Laughter.] on the Supreme Court: Expanding on Professor Wexler’s ‘Laugh Track’

“Rather than merely counting the number of laughs the various justices elicited from the gallery at the Court, I have also tallied the number of times those justices spoke up in oral argument overall, so that we can see, on a per-comment basis, who is actually funniest.”

The results :

“Justice Scalia is again the winner of the Court’s stand-up (sit-down?) comedy competition, averaging a laugh every 27.6 comments. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Breyer are bunched at the top with Scalia, averaging 38.6 and 31.8 comments per laugh, respectively.”

BONUS: An example joke from the records, from Justice Kennedy

“Recently I lost my luggage. I had to go to the lost and found at the airline, and the lady said has my plane landed yet.” (“Laughter”)

COMING SOON : ‘Uhming and erring’ at the Supreme Court.

[Many thanks to Mr. Wojciechowski for clarifications regarding his paper]