Humor in the courtroom may affect Supreme Court decisions

Ryan Malphurs

Supreme Court decisions in legal cases could directly correlate to the justices’ use of humor in the courtroom. 

In fact, according to Dr. Ryan Malphurs, who studied at Texas A&M University and now works as a trial consultant for Tara Trask & Associates in Dallas, the justices’ humor and courtroom communication in the country’s highest court may have indicated the results of the nation’s new healthcare law.

Malphurs and his co-author, L. Hailey Drescher from the University of North Texas, published the study about Supreme Court jocularity entitled “That’s Enough Frivolity: A Not So Funny Countdown of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act Oral Arguments,” which was analyzed and featured in the Washington Post, New York Times, and on National Public Radio.

Malphurs analyzed all six hours and 14 minutes of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare.”

“We looked at the justices’ questioning style, how they challenged counsels, whether they permitted counsels an equal opportunity to respond, the frequency with which they interrupted counsels, their assistance of counsel’s arguments, and their overall treatment of counsels,” said Malphurs.

Malphurs looked at speaking times and the way the justices challenged advocates. He also assessed the amount of laughter in the arguments. 

“The four oral arguments produced some of the most frequent occurrences of laughter on any topic–63 times, averaging more than ten laughs per hour, a surprisingly high number, particularly for such a serious subject,” the authors wrote in the study.

Malphurs believes that laughter and joking may be one way justices and attorneys of break down formal barriers that obstruct communication.

“Even at the highest level of legal thought, where impartial consideration should be paramount, human bias and prejudice still dominate the justices’ interactions,” said Malphurs.

With his findings, Malphurs correctly identified eight of the nine justices’ voting positions. He also pinpointed Chief Justice John Roberts as a possible swing vote.

“We found that the line of questioning pretty much followed preferential political leanings,” said Malphurs. “Many of the justices already had preconceived notions when entering oral arguments.”

Justice Roberts’ vote to uphold the constitutionality of the act caught many by surprise, and although Malphurs sees Roberts’ decision as multi-faceted, his theories shed light on how laughter and the justices’ communication in the courtroom foreshadow how justices may vote.

While at Texas A&M, Malphurs focused his research on legal and political rhetoric with an emphasis on Supreme Court oral arguments. 

His revised dissertation, “Rhetoric and Discourse in Supreme Court Oral Arguments,” is being published by Routledge in 2013. It will be the first major study on Supreme Court oral arguments within the field of Communication.