Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Laughtergate: The Day the Laughter Died at SCOTUS

This article first appeared in the December 16, 2013, issue of the National Law Journal’s Supreme Court Brief.

Laughter can be serious business at the U.S. Supreme Court, especially on the First Monday in October.

As the new term opened this fall, laughter disappeared from argument transcripts and a mild rumpus ensued on social media. Laughter did make a comeback, but not without some unanswered questions.

“When you read Supreme Court argument transcripts,” Justice Elena Kagan explained to a group of Harvard Law School students in September, “they actually tell you when there’s laughter in the Court” and which justice triggered it.

Jay Wexler, a former clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and now a professor at Boston University School of Law, publishes updated laughter counts for each justice at his @SCOTUShumor Twitter feed, along with commentary.

“Ten o’clock,” Wexler tweeted on Monday, October 7. “I guess #SCOTUS has started up. I can feel the laughter coursing through the countryside. If you’re very still, you can too.”

Kimberly Atkins, who also follows Supreme Court laughter, was in the courtroom. From her @DCDicta Twitter feed that morning, Atkins reported that Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito had all gotten laughs.

Problem is, when the transcripts went online later that day, the laughter was missing.

Twitter noticed.

Both Wexler and Atkins tweeted about the A.W.O.L. laughter, and Atkins reiterated: “I heard laughs w my own ears. But if it isn’t in the transcript, is it like a tree falling in a forest?”

Other Twitter users, including myself, joined the discussion through comments and retweets.

Laughter at the Supreme Court has a following. To some, it is like box scores, fun to track. To others, it is a digestive aid that helps dull transcripts go down. It is even fodder for scholars, since laughter gives insight into justices’ personalities and Supreme Court dynamics.

Wexler wondered if “they’ve stopped making the notation. Several possible laugh lines in the transcript.”

Not only was the term new that day, but so was the Clerk of the Court, Scott Harris. His predecessor, William Suter, retired over the summer after more than two decades in the position. Had a new, laughter-free day dawned at the Supreme Court?

That afternoon, I contacted Alderson Reporting, which prepares the transcripts. A company representative indicated by telephone the next day that there was not a new policy; however, he did not explain the laughter void. (Responding to a later inquiry for this story, the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office said: “We don’t know why the omission occurred.”)

“Laughtergate deepens,” Atkins tweeted.

The good news is that laughtergate was mostly short-lived. The next day, laughter showed up in a new transcript. The First Monday transcripts remained somber, though. During the next week, I checked for updates several times. Still no laughter.

Another check in early December revealed that the laughter was back: one laugh each for four justices on the term’s first day, consistent with Atkins’ tweet.

When the laughter returned is fuzzy. Neither Alderson nor the Public Information Office provided an exact date. The office did say that Alderson initiated and made the changes as part of its review process.

So, where do the numbers stand now?

After the “laughtergate fix,” as Wexler called it, he tweeted updated numbers for the term, current through the December sitting. Scalia leads with twenty-two laughs; Breyer is not far behind with twenty. Ginsburg and the famously silent Justice Clarence Thomas are tied for last with zero.

“I check sometimes,” Kagan told the Harvard Law students, with a slight grin, speaking of the laughter tallies.

For more justices’ comments on the subject, see Wexler’s collection at his website.