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Which Supreme Court Justice Cracks The Most Jokes?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In all of its articles and amendments, the Constitution does not specifically authorize Supreme Court justices to tell jokes on the bench.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

But it doesn't forbid humor either, and some justices have apparently taken a generous reading of our founding law.

INSKEEP: In case after case, the justices hold oral arguments, sparring with lawyers and with each other, and Ryan Malphurs studied those arguments in search of witty remarks.

MONTAGNE: He published his findings as a dissertation at Texas A and M.

Mr. RYAN MALPHURS (Attorney): The name the study is "People Did Sometimes Stick Things Down My Underwear."

INSKEEP: That title comes from an actual remark by Justice Stephen Breyer in 2009. The court was hearing arguments in a case where a teenage girl was strip-searched for drugs. Justice Breyer was attempting to understand the circumstances of the search and his comments did not come out quite right.

Justice STEPHEN BREYER (U.S. Supreme Court): You know, we did take off our clothes once a day - we changed for gym. OK? And in my experience too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear. Well, not my underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Malphurs studied all of the notations of laughter that were entered into the court record during the 2006-2007 term.

Mr. MALPHURS: They're very quick-witted and they enjoy the intellectual quip occasionally.

INSKEEP: Occasionally. He found 131 instances in which laughter followed a comment from the bench.

MONTAGNE: Some were unintentional. Before becoming a justice, Elena Kagan appeared before the court and mistakenly called Antonin Scalia Mr. Chief Justice. The real chief justice, John Roberts, responded.

Justice ELENA KAGAN (U.S. Supreme Court): Mr. Chief - excuse me, Justice Scalia, I didn't mean to promote you quite so quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court): Thanks for thinking it was a promotion.

INSKEEP: According to the dissertation, Justice Scalia cracked the most jokes. Let's hear an exchange from 2005 in which a light bulb in the courtroom blew out. First, you're going to hear Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and then Justices Scalia and Roberts.

Justice RUTH BADER GINSBURG (U.S. Supreme Court): And it's only fair that your adversary should be able to...

(Soundbite of noise)

Justice ANTONIN SCALIA (U.S. Supreme Court): Light bulb went out.

Justice ROBERTS: It's a trick they play on new chief justices all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice SCALIA: Happy Halloween.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Justice GINSBURG: That's the idea.

Justice ROBERTS: Take your time.

Justice SCALIA: We're even more in the dark now than before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Supreme Court humor from which there is no appeal.

INSKEEP: Ryan Malphurs' study in the current issue of the Communication Law Review. It's based on his dissertation.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.