American Dispatch: Humor in the High Court

By FOX News Radio’s Jared Halpern, who was inside the United States Supreme Court for all three days of oral arguments on the healthcare law.

Who knew the Supreme Court had a sense of humor?

Sure, six hours of oral arguments, including 90 minutes focused on the Tax Anti-Injunction Act is hardly a night at the Laugh Factory. But, there’s also more to the highest court in the land than black robes and legalese.

Take Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance. His reputation is one of an unapologetic constitutional originalist and an abrasive questioner. But, get him to talk about the Tenth Amendment and Medicaid requirements and he’s sure to get everyone sitting in the court room to let out a much needed chuckle (and, in the case of some, a full-hearted belly laugh).

LISTEN to the humorous exchange between justices:

“You can’t refuse your money or your life,” Scalia explained during an exchange about federal Medicaid requirements. “But your life or your wife’s? I could refuse that one.”

The quick-witted Justice Sonia Sotomayor said what many of us in the courtroom were suddenly thinking.

“He’s not going home tonight,” she said.

Chief Justice John Roberts adding, “Let’s leave the wives out of this.”

Finally, in a dry wit leaving many to wonder if he was in on the joke all along, Scalia restored levity, explaining, “I’m talking about my life. Take mine, y’know.”

The three days of arguments about the future of the Affordable Care Act, considered among the most important cases to reach the Supreme Court in decades, was filled with similar humorous (and unexpected) exchanges.

Take for instance Monday’s discussion on the rarely cited Tax Anti-Injunction Act of 1867. The entire argument rests on whether or not the requirement to purchase health insurance and the fine tied with non-compliance amounted to a tax.

That fine is assessed like a tax and collected like a tax. But, both the Obama Administration and the 26 states challenging the Affordable Care Act prefer that the mandate not be treated like a tax and thus barred from legal challenge until at least 2014.

The problem: Even Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was somewhat tongue-tied explaining the subtleties, freely switching back and forth between the words “penalty” and “tax”.

That is, until, Justice Stephen Breyer interrupted.

“You keep saying tax,” he said. Spectators bellowed, fully aware the word tax was the very word Verilli (and the 26 Attorneys General) were hoping to avoid.

“Tax penalty,” Verrilli finally settled on.

Here’s the point. A select nine people, appointed by Presidents and confirmed by the Senate, ultimately have final say on a 2,700 page law that serves as a lightning rod in the political sphere.

I bet that responsibility is easier to handle with a few laughs.

LISTEN to some of Jared Halpern’s reporting on the healthcare arguments heard at the United States Supreme Court: