Supreme Court Justices Have a Thing for Shakespeare

The brief’s the thing

William Shakespeare

The Supreme Court isn’t all lengthy arguments and dry briefs — in fact, several justices are known for their wit as well as their legal wisdom. Now, a new study shows that the Court has a distinctly literary bent, quoting William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll more often than any other authors.

When the National Law Journal put out a call for top 10 lists about the Supreme Court, Scott and Ami Dodson decided to rank each justice by their literary chops. They ranked justices by references to classic authors (not counting the Bible or popular books) in their briefs and found that Antonin Scalia, who has been on the court the longest, by far surpassed his fellow justices with a total of 39 references to 15 authors. He was followed by Steven G. Breyer (15 references, 12 authors), Clarence Thomas (11 references, nine authors) and Anthony M. Kennedy (eight references, eight authors).

William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll tied for most-referenced author with 16 references each, followed by George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Aldous Huxley. Notably, no woman appears on the most-cited list, but women like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Edith Wharton were cited one time each. “We draw no conclusions about whether these numbers are high or low,” the authors write. “For some, more literary references cannot be too much of a good thing. For others, fiction makes too much sense for a legal reality that rarely does.”

The list did not look at the many pop culture references to be found in Supreme Court briefs and arguments, notes the American Bar Journal’s Debra Cassens Weiss. Perhaps a later study will uncover the justices’ nerdy contemporary tendencies — after all, this year’s Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC brief contained a Spider-Man reference, and the justices even played video games before deciding a case in 2011.

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