The Texas litigation consultant studied all the notations of laughter during the court’s 2006-2007 term, and discovered a few more himself while listening to tapes.
He found that fewer than half the comments were directed to the lawyer in front of the justices, or even to the argument he or she was making.
The rest were self-referential, or about the court, or about some third party, such as Congress or government in general.
In scholarly fashion, Malphurs – who studied the court for his communications dissertation at Texas A&M – looked for deeper meaning:
“The justices’ laughter diminishes formal control and power barriers, facilitating communication amongst themselves, between the justices and advocates, and with the audience members as well.”
I met Ryan on the Supreme Court sidewalk before the first day of the term, where he gave me a preview of this study as we paced in front of the Court trying to keep warm. He stayed in line for the rest of that first week and later, in a post for F1@1F, reflected on his night with the crowd for Snyder v. Phelps.
Congratulations on the great press, Dr. Malphurs, and keep up the great work!
UPDATE (1/24/11): Adam Liptak of the New York Times gives Malphurs’s study a look.