Sunday, January 01, 2006

On lawyer humor before the Supreme Court

In this New York Times article about the recent study of the frequency of laughter attributed to the remarks of different U.S. Supreme Court justices, there is also the following on lawyer humor:

"Lawyers get laughs sometimes, too, but it is a dangerous business. In the guidebook the court provides to lawyers preparing to argue before it, there is this stern warning: 'Attempts at humor usually fall flat.'

Thomas C. Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who appears before the court frequently, said humor 'is a land mine.'

'You have to follow the justices' lead,' Mr. Goldstein said. 'You have to be a straight man.'

Lawyers confuse one justice with another surprisingly often, and those mix-ups are, of course, an opportunity for humor.

Last November, Sri Srinivasan, a government lawyer, apologized to Justice David H. Souter for referring to him as Justice Scalia.

'Thank you,' Justice Souter said, with characteristic self-deprecation, 'but apologize to him.'"

My favorite of the name mix-ups is still from the oral argument in Bush v. Gore. See pages 33-35 of this transcript, concluding with "Mr. Klock - I'm Scalia."

A few memorable times I've heard lawyers or witnesses before Judge Williams tell a joke to make a point. At one key juncture in an important hearing, the witness asked the judge if he could tell about a cartoon he'd seen to make his point. "Well, all right," said the judge. "But it had better be a good one."

The first time I saw a lawyer make a joke and pull it off with some panache, the lawyer was a fine fellow named Michael J. Passino from Nashville, explaining why the United Mine Workers had tried yet again during the Pittston strike to remove the case before Judge McGlothlin to federal court. His name popped in my head the other day as I was walking back along Union Street after the Music City Bowl. I retold his joke for about the 100th time (over the past 15 years) as we were driving back from the game. He didn't win the motion, but he made an impression on me.

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