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Taking Laughter Seriously at the Supreme Court [study update]

Studies into possible implications of laughter episodes at the US Supreme Court were initiated in 2005 by Professor Jay D. Wexler (Boston University School of Law) who was the first to calculate the ‘Laughter Episodes Instigated Per Argument Average’ (LEIPAA) from the records of court proceedings.

Details here in a 2016 Improbable Article.

Then, in 2019, Professor Tonja Jacobi (Northwestern Pritzker School of Law) and Professor Matthew Sag (Loyola University Chicago School of Law) took the matter further with another study which looked (amongst other things) at laughter over time initiated by justices and advocates, per five thousand words (1955 – 2015).

“The performative nature of courtroom humor is apparent from the uneven distribution of judicial jokes, jests, and jibes. The Justices overwhelmingly direct their most humorous comments at the advocates with whom they disagree, the advocates who are losing, and novice advocates.”

With the finding that the number of (justice initiated) laughter episodes in a hearing can be used to predict the outcome of the case.

“Building on prior work, we show that laughter in the courtroom is yet another aspect of judicial behavior that can be used to predict cases before Justices have even voted.”

See: Taking Laughter Seriously at the Supreme Court  Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol 72, No.5, 1423 (2019)

Update update: Siyu Li, who is PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. US, has contacted us to alert to a new research paper :

“In our study, we find that attorneys whose remarks cause more laughter in the Courtroom (audible from the recording; justices are not necessarily laughing) are more likely to win justices’ votes. Furthermore, we find that the role of laughter is mediated by other factors, such as justices’ ideology, the legal quality of the attorney’s argumentation, and case complexity.”

See: Humor and Persuasion  : The Effects of Laughter during US Supreme Court’s Oral Arguments, Law & Policy, Volume 42, Issue 2, April 2020.

Research research by Martin Gardiner

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