October 28, 2013

Study: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 Is Funny

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 is no Justice Antonin Scalia, but Ginsburg is still “a true comedian,” according to a new study.

The study, which built off of a 2005 study of Supreme Court humor that dubbed Scalia “the funniest judge,” found that Ginsburg is 200 percent funnier than the previous study thought.

The 2013 study added on to the previous study’s methodology, expanding its definition of laughter beyond only the instances written down by court stenographers to include all instances of laughter heard during oral arguments.

While the previous study measured the number of times “(laughter)” was transcribed in the oral arguments of the Court’s 2004-05 transcripts, the new study — which examined 79 oral arguments in the 2011-12 Supreme Court term — recorded the instances of laughter that transcribers had missed, concluding that the justices were perhaps even funnier than thought of before.

Calculating the humor differential by comparing the number of instances of humor in the transcript to the instances of actual humor, the study found that Ginsburg had the highest humor differential — 200 percent. The study said that, contrary to the previous study’s determination that Ginsburg was only funny twice, she was actually funny six times.

“Ginsburg’s dry humor apparently has been soaring over [the transcriber’s] head and perhaps some of the Court’s bar members,” the study said.

Ginsburg’s wit aside, Justice Scalia still led as the “funniest” justice with 136 instances of actual humor, with Justice Stephen Breyer following behind at 93 instances of actual humor.

The authors of the study, which was titled “Too Much Frivolity, Not Enough Femininity: A Study of Gender and Humor at the U.S. Supreme Court” and published earlier this month, were looking to study the relationship between gender and humor in the court. In addition to finding previously unrecorded humor in the court, the study also found other noticeable gender differences in how justices engage with advocates.

Although humor and the Supreme Court may seem a surprising pair, it could be explained by the increasingly active role those on the bench have been taking, according to Prof. John Blume, law.

Blume, who has argued eight cases in the Supreme Court between the late 1980s and 2010, said that the justices have “definitely become much more active as a group.”

“The number of questions which were asked in general have gone up substantially, so the one phenomenon, which I think is definitely true, is that the justices are much more active participants in asking many more questions, which counsel has to respond to,” he said.

Blume said that because justices have been participating more during oral arguments over the past two or so decades, quips or humorous remarks are more likely to emerge.

Blume said he does not see anything inherently wrong with justices’ use of humor, adding that there are potential benefits to jokes from the justices.

“In my mind, there is a time and place for everything, and certainly sometimes in an oral argument, a little levity or humor can help lighten the mood,” he said. “Sometimes in other types of argument, humor can be used to make an important rhetorical point.”

On the other hand, though, Blume added that “if the justices are participating in a way or in a manner, which makes it difficult for the lawyers to make their point, that’s not a good thing either.”