The Supreme Court: It’s a Laughing Matter

The Supreme Court: It’s a Laughing Matter

Building on Professor Jay Wexler’s 2005 brief study of the number of notations of laugher in the Supreme court, Ryan Malphurs, Ph.D. dissects the function of laughter in the Supreme Court in People Did Sometimes Stick Things in my Underwear” The Function of Laughter at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Malphurs finds laughter in the Supreme Court an interesting topic because, he states, “…laughter in the Courtroom is a regular occurrence but it has rarely been studied….” He also hopes “that others will expand upon research generated within [his] study.” Malphurs wanted to take a much more pragmatic approach to the study of Courtroom laughter than his predecessor. In Wexler’s study, the “funniness” of a Justice was determined by the number of laughter notations in the Court transcripts. Taking a deeper look, Malphurs analyzed laughter in the Courtroom based on four parameters: context, frequency, tone and direction.

According to Malphurs, “…context reveals laughter’s complexities and multipurpose function….” On laughter’s functions, Malphurs cites psychological texts, stating that “…laughter has been known to elevate moods, release stress…” Laughter in the Courtroom, Malphurs finds, serves this exact purpose and eases the tension between advisor and justice. In one situation, upon listing appointed individuals to a justice, an advisor neglected to certify that they met the necessary qualifications. After the judge asked for the qualifications, the advisor quickly read the perfunctory clause while the Court laughed. The laughter served to alleviate the tension caused by the lawyer’s mistake.

The second part of the study focused on frequency of laughter in the Courtroom. Upon reexamining Wexler’s laughter notation counts, Malphurs found that many “’laughter’ situations…were not recorded” in the court transcripts Wexler used. In researching further, Malphurs found an additional 131 instances of laughter across 51 cases. These increased occurrences of laughter gave Malphurs a rich sampling for the study.

When analyzing the frequency of laughter, Malphurs also studied the tone and direction of laughter.  “The direction of laughter,” Malphurs states, “coupled with tone provides a means of understanding the types of laughter generating statements that justices and advocates use, as well as the level of control and resistance exerted by the statement.” Malphurs studied the occurrences of laughter and “…categorized instances in which laughter suggested aggressive or congenial tones to determine how the Court may [have used] laughter as a form of control and resistance.” Interestingly, out of 131 instances of laughter, only three were used as acts of aggression.

Malphurs also studied the direction of laughter. He investigated whether “…laughter was directed at the advocate personally, the lawyer’s arguments, the justice themselves, the other justices, or a third party.” Direction is an important factor in this study because, Malphurs notes, “…laughter can function as a form of control…understanding what direction laughter follows can reveal what type of control or superiority justices or advocates exerted.” Although it seems as though the justices would maintain the control of laughter in the Courtroom, the study showed that “…over half of advocates’ statements which generated laughter resulted from them making fun of a justice…”

After analyzing the context, frequency, tone and direction of laughter in the Courts, Malphurs concluded that “…laughter during oral arguments appears to be a means of negotiating the institutional, social, and intellectual barriers separating the justices from advocates, and in turn organizing the communication within oral arguments.” Malphurs continues, “…laughter plays an important communicative role by braking down various barriers that impeded communication and generating equality among participants.” With laughter as a recently uncovered remedy to ease tension in the Courtroom, it leaves one to wonder if An Idiot’s Guide to Laughter will soon be a required text for L1 students.

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