University of Southern California

Laughter at the Court: The Supreme Court as a Source of Humor

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Article by Laura Krugman Ray
From Volume 79, Number 6 (September, 2006)

The United States Supreme Court, with its black-robed justices and its marble columns, has long been regarded as the most formal and opaque branch of the federal government. While the president and the members of Congress have deliberately wooed the public with election campaigns that attempt to humanize the candidate, the justices have preferred to maintain the Court’s traditional aura of remote dignity by steadfastly refusing to televise its proceedings. Even the current willingness of some justices to present themselves directly to the public through extrajudicial writings and television interviews has not yet erased the public image of the Court as a solemn institution. When a legal scholar recently tracked the incidence of humorous exchanges during the Court’s oral arguments, the New York Times considered the idea of laughter at the Court worthy of a front page article. Yet even if there have been few occasions for laughter in the courtroom, the Court itself has in the past half century become a consistent source of humor in the pages of another, less solemn American institution, The New Yorker magazine. The emergence of the Court as a reliable subject for New Yorker cartoons suggests two related developments: the growing public awareness of the Court’s role in American life and the parallel willingness of the public to appreciate – and laugh at – the impact of the Court’s jurisprudence on its own domestic life.

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