Study: Conservative Supreme Court Justices Get More Laughs Than Liberals

October 8, 2013 9:21 a.m.

Justice Antonin Scalia may have the best grasp on humor out of all of his peers on the bench, at least according to the number of times justices elicit laughter during oral arguments, a new study published last week by a group of researchers found.

The Supreme Court justices keep an informal running tally of who elicits the most laughter in court based on “[laughter]” notations inserted into court transcripts, the New York Times reported Monday.

Justice Kagan told the Times she checked the internal rankings now and again, but that she knew the odds were against her.

“Justice Scalia has like lapped us 10 times,” Kagan said.

“I’m very securely in the middle,” she added, “but I heard somebody say I’m underperforming.”

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But a team of researchers took a more precise approach to gauge comedy rankings: they listened to recordings of every argument in the last SCOTUS term, and found 61 percent more instances of laughter in the room than the court transcripts let on. 

“We deemed something as being humorous if it elicited laughter from the audience, justices or advocates,” the study reads. “We captured all moments of laughter in oral arguments that we could hear ranging from chuckles to full-throated roars,” which added up to 343 instances of humor.

All the liberal justices combined elicited 136 instances of laughter. Justice Scalia elicited that same number by himself.

“It turns out that the conservatives dominate, even carrying the silence of Justice Thomas, with 207 instances of laughter, or 41 instances per justice,” the study found, which counted Justice Anthony Kennedy with his more conservative colleagues.

Chief Justice Roberts was found to be the least funny, with a humor differential of 26 percent. 

The study also includes a chart of comedic jabs between the justices, which notes that Breyer was the butt of Scalia’s jokes 11 times, more than any other justice was picked on by anyone else on the bench.

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