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.
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:
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?