Scalia’s Sassiness and Sarcasm: Hilarious or Inappropriate?

Antonin Scalia is undoubtedly the most charismatic and infamous justice on the Supreme Court today. He is outlandish, abrasive, but still at times very succinct with his views of statutory interpretation. He’s the kind of character that you wouldn’t expect to be one of the nine most powerful judges in the country, but you’re not exactly disappointed that he is either. Whether or not you agree with how he interprets statutes and the Constitution, there is no denying that his opinions are worthy of debate and dissection. But it is unsurprisingly fun to do so, mostly because of Scalia’s sarcastic sense of humor.

Scalia Lands at Top of Sarcasm Index for Justices. Shocking.

The above article from the New York Times looks at a study done at the University of California, which empirically creates a “sarcasm index” to measure the Supreme Court justices use of sarcasm and irony. Unsurprisingly, Justice Scalia falls miles ahead of every other justice measured on this index. The evidence of these kinds of remarks are made readily available, as Scalia is an extremely public figure whose sarcasm plays at least some role in all of his works — whether they are his written decisions on cases, his other original texts, or public appearances. The article discusses a particularly funny instance of Scalia’s sarcasm on full display: in the courtroom a lawyer ceded that Scalia was right, but only if in the literal sense. To this Scalia replied, “Oh, I see. What sense are we talking here? Poetic?”

Even in the text we read this week — Scalia’s Matter of Interpretation — Scalia uses his dry humor to convey his theories of textualism and statutory interpretation. The pages we read rarely get bogged down in strict, boring theories and arguments for textualism; Scalia’s colorful metaphors and sarcastic quips keep the subject matter interesting, whether or not you agree with Scalia’s manner of interpretation. In the text he states, “Of all the criticisms leveled against textualism, the most mindless is that it is ‘formalistic.’ The answer to that is, of course it’s formalistic! The rule of law is about form.” In another text looking at his views on statutory interpretation he asks, “What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?” And finally, in a 2013 dissent on the Defense of Marriage Act decision, Scalia penned this interesting quip:

Justice Scalia Conservative

As I stated earlier, we don’t expect someone with this type of humor to be on the highest of courts in the nation. And we also don’t expect his philosophy of textualism to lend itself to humor (no matter how dry). In A Matter of Interpretation, Scalia states:

In some sophisticated circles, it [textualism] is considered  simpleminded — “wooden,” “unimaginative,” “pedestrian.” It is none of that. To be a textualist in good standing, one need not be too dull to perceive the broader social purposes that a statute is designed, or could be designed, to serve; or too hidebound to realize that new times require new laws.

This interpretative stance as Scalia would have us understand it, is not by nature simple and dull. But even if you do think it is boring — I personally find textualism too narrow and clearly defined to pique my interest — there is no denying that Scalia’s own humor and spice makes textualism worthy of our time.

With Scalia’s fascinating and entertaining sarcasm established, it is important now to acknowledge that this humor may not be entirely appropriate given his prestigious position. Scalia is tasked with dealing with cases that are both important in terms of the laws in which they deal, but also the people that they affect. Is such a flippant and humorous attitude really appropriate when dealing with such sensitive and serious subject matters? The professor who created the sarcasm index does not think so, stating, “I think it is a bad thing. There is a great deal of value to civility, especially when the court is writing in a sensitive area.” So I’ll ask the question: does Scalia’s sarcasm add a much needed dose of humor to a somber Supreme Court, or does it only exist to unnecessarily stir the pot?

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3 Responses to Scalia’s Sassiness and Sarcasm: Hilarious or Inappropriate?

  1. dakotalarson says:

    For the most part, I appreciate Scalia’s humor and sarcasm. To answer your ending question, I believe that his sarcasm probably does “stir the pot” but that this may not necessarily be a bad thing. I feel like if he had created too many problems, he would have been impeached by now, or would have retired if he was not feeling like his job was fulfilling. I find it a bit odd that Supreme Court Justices do not have a maximum time they can serve, but Scalia has been serving since 1986. The average length of time a Justice serves is 16 years.

    Like you mentioned, Scalia’s sarcasm is not to be expected to be associated with someone in the Supreme Court, let alone for his ideas of textualism to come across as humorous. I cannot speak to how he comes across in-person or how much he filters/reduces this in his job versus in the “Common Law Courts in a Civil Law System” essay he wrote, but I think his traditionalism and levelheadedness are good and necessary traits to fulfill the Supreme Court’s role in checks and balance, especially in its power of judicial review. Scalia is not afraid to question others or how the course of history has flawed our justice system, and he has been around long enough to witness the changes himself.

    From reading his essay, I think Scalia has done what was necessary to try and uphold the integrity of the Constitution. He discusses the debate about original meaning versus current meaning, and because judges and lawyers already try to interpret the law too much, the Supreme Court should be focusing on the text. I think that for the most part, our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the mindset that it would prevail long after it was complete, and the intent is for people to not stray too far away from it.

    I’m looking forward to discussing it in class further because I enjoy hearing everyone else’s perspective and if it changes my own view on the reading.

  2. naherresp says:

    Depending on who is in the courtroom Scalia’s humor can be interpreted as offensive and therefore taken out of context. His humor could have been one of many virtues that allowed him to be a part of the Supreme Court. He has brought a different prospective and individualism to the system. Even though Scalia is widely recognized and professional, it doesn’t indicate he needs to be up tight and forfeit his charismatic personality. I personally applaud judges or any individual who doesn’t take themselves or others too serious; of course depending on the situation.

  3. vincetrrs says:

    I enjoy reading about Scalia and his humor. I also share a rather dry sense of humor , and I feel better about reading about otherwise arguably dull subjects when it is Scalia who is talking about them. I agree with you when you said that ” there is no denying that Scalia’s own humor and spice makes textualism worthy of our time.” I believe that his humor is underappreciated given his high position. To answer your question I think Scalia’s sarcasm does indeed add needed humor. Too much is serious in law, I don’t think a little humor hurts. I don’t think he oversteps boundaries with his humor so I think he has been able to remain approriate also.

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