After paying their respects to the tragic death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the members of the Supreme Court turned their attention to the vacancy his departure has left on the bench: the unofficial title of funniest justice.
WASHINGTON – Monday’s Supreme Court session began with Chief Justice John Roberts honoring his late colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia.
“We remember his incisive intellect, his agile wit and his captivating prose, but we cannot forget his irrepressible spirit,” Roberts said.
But seconds later, Roberts made the opening bid to take on the title of wittiest justice, a title Scalia was widely considered to hold until his Feb. 13 death.
“He authored 292 majority opinions on the court. He was also known on occasion to dissent,” Roberts commented in amusing understatement of Scalia’s well-documented, often fiery opposition as spectators laughed appreciatively.
The nation’s highest court held oral arguments without Scalia for the first time Monday morning.
His customary seat, directly to the right of Roberts, was left empty, a black cloth draped over it. The court has said the seat will remain that way in Scalia’s honor until the next session of oral arguments begins in mid-March.
Former President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia in 1986, around the same time the court’s oral
argument style began to grow increasingly talkative. Scalia was known for his sharp questioning and helped usher in the era of near constant interruptions. But he was also famous for his drollness on the bench and was arguably the court’s funniest member.
Evidence presented at Monday’s session suggested that some of the other justices could assume that unofficial title.
The strongest comedic displays undoubtedly came from Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer, who has been on the court since 1994. As he questioned the lawyer representing a veteran-owned business in the morning’s first case, which dealt with the obligation of the Department of
Veterans Affairs to award contracts to such businesses, Breyer sighed in exasperation as he tried to decipher the VA argument.
“That was their argument. The government’s given that up,” Breyer said. “So I don’t know what to do. I mean, I’m going to ask them (government lawyers) for help…” he added as the other justices chuckled.
Roberts’ second moment was likely inadvertent. As the government’s lawyer argued the VA was already “crushing” requirements to award a certain number of contracts to veteran-owned businesses, Roberts became confused.
“I’m sorry,” Roberts said. “When you say you’re ‘crushing’ the goals, that means you’re meeting them?”
The room erupted into laughter as the attorney quickly explained “crushing” meant exceeding expectations.
But in the end Breyer had the best moment of the morning, at least in the eyes of comedy talent scouts.
“I’m trying to make an argument for you…Am I way off base or is that what you’re trying to say? And don’t just say it is because you think I’d agree with it!” Breyer said, coming close to wagging his finger at the lawyer in front of him.
Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nearest justices to Scalia in ideology, made it clear he was not in the running to take up the mantle of court humorist. Thomas continued his streak of not asking a question during oral arguments for almost 10 years. In 2013, he made a joke about the competence of a Harvard law degree (Thomas attended Yale law school), but since then has not spoken out during oral arguments, joke or otherwise.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s most talkative justice during oral arguments, drew one laugh, poking fun at the generous wording of reasonable suspicion from the petitioner in the day’s second case.
But in the first test in the race for funniest justice, Roberts and Breyer clearly pulled ahead. The rest of the 2015 term will show whether they have the comedy chops to cement their place at the top.