March 30th, 2010
04:55 PM ET
5 years ago

High court debates a little case with lots of laughter

ALT TEXT

The high court's justices managed to crack themselves up - along with the public audience - at least a dozen times in the hour-long oral debate Tuesday. (Photo Credit: Getty Images/File)

Washington (CNN) - Sometimes the most complicated of cases at the Supreme Court brings out the best arguments. It certainly brought out the giggles in a little-watched appeal Tuesday over federal prison terms.

The justices managed to crack themselves up - along with the public audience - at least a dozen times in the hour-long oral debate. Justice Clarence Thomas rarely speaks at the high court's normally sober sessions, but he especially enjoyed the gentle insults and self-deprecating jibes his colleagues showered on each other. His booming laugh could be clearly heard at times.

At issue was how the federal Bureau of Prisons should calculate "good-time credit" - reduced sentences for inmates staying out of trouble in custody. Prisoners can earn up to 54 days of credit for each year of the sentence.

The ambiguity comes with language in the federal law on how to add up the credits. Prisoners and even law enforcement officials find the formula complicated. The high court agreed Tuesday - repeatedly.

Justice Antonin Scalia suggested the good-time credits kick in at day 311 - 54 days before year's end - and not day 365.

Jeffrey Wall, arguing for the government, replied, "Justice Scalia, I think that sets up an odd system,"

Scalia pointed his finger at Wall's adversary, a federal public defender sitting in the next table, who was nodding his head vigorously at Scalia's comments. "See, he agrees with me!" said the justice.

Justice John Paul Stevens later expressed concern at the government's position. "If there are 195,000 people spending significantly more time in jail than they should, that's kind of troublesome."

Wall explained that is how prison officials have been doing it since 1987, and Congress never bothered to amend the good-time formula.

"Probably they [lawmakers] didn't understand it because it's an awfully hard statute to understand."

Wall jumped in. "Justice Stevens, with all due respect, Justice [Stephen] Breyer got it in the first five minutes."

"Well, he's a lot smarter than I am," replied Stevens, smiling broadly.

Scalia couldn't resist. "Even Justice Breyer has got it!" he roared.

"Whoa!" The two jurists are ideological oppositeses, but good friends on and off the bench.

Near the end, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had problems with her math.

Under the current interpretation, the government does "the measurement [of good-time credit] at the end of the 365 days," she told Stephen Sady, lawyer for the inmates. "Let's say he misbehaves on the 340th day, and they say for that reason, we're only going to give you 10 days of credit. So now your
year starts at 350?"

"355. Yes," Sady corrected her, politely of course..

"No 350, because they are only giving 10 days of good-time credit." She paused for a second. "Because at the end of– wait– 355..."

"355," answered Sady, politely of course, but smiling.

"That was pretty bad," said Sotomayor, hands raised, shaking her head and chuckling at her mistake. The courtroom erupted in laughter.

Despite the fun, the question is a serious one for the nearly 197,000 federal prisoners and their families, according to the most recent weekly population report issued by the Justice Department. Ninety-five percent of the inmates are affected by the good-time provision. Lawyers for the inmates say
the savings to taxpayers under their reading of the law would amount to $953 million a year now being spent to incarcerate current prisoners.

The case is Barber v. Thomas (09-5201). A written ruling - minus any jokes - is expected by June.


Filed under: Supreme Court
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Average American

    I love it! I hope we can all follow their example and get along a bit better, even if we disagree.

    March 30, 2010 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  2. Jack

    After 5000 years of so called civilization, hasn't anyone figured out that prisons don't work. They serve as a College, that turns bad people in to career criminals. It is also a tool of vengance, which belongs to God alone!

    March 30, 2010 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  3. richardaberdeen

    After the recent Supreme Court ruling defending corporations as people with rights, one could failry conclude that this entire Supreme Court is nothing but a joke. Unfortunately, we the people are left bearing the brunt of the punch line.

    March 30, 2010 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  4. Independent

    I guess if they were talking about enemy detainees they would be serious. But they are just talking about mostly Americans right?

    March 30, 2010 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  5. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Hell, I did'nt get it either, but it is good to see the justices laughing.

    See, can't we all just get along?

    March 30, 2010 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  6. sssimon

    "Clarence Thomas rarely speaks at the high court's normally sober sessions, but he especially enjoyed the gentle insults and self-deprecating jibes his colleagues showered on each other. His booming laugh could be clearly heard at times."

    Way to earn your pay Clarence! Surely the biggest waste of space ever to sit on the Supreme Court. He has said nothing, written no opinions for 20 years. He just votes with the right wingers. They can always count on Clarence.

    Brought to you by George Bush Sr.

    March 30, 2010 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  7. dorsano

    It's nice to see the congeniality and the focus on addressing problems. Show us more CNN (if you can find some).

    March 30, 2010 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  8. Moonman

    Jack, I agree.That's why we should stop talking about how the Saudi justice system is terrible. it works for them and it sure will teach criminals a lesson not to be forgotten.

    March 30, 2010 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
  9. T'SAH from Virginia

    Does this apply to the SEX OFFENDERS who are raping and killing our children?????

    March 30, 2010 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  10. Retired Army in San Antonio

    T'SAH from Virginia -- March 30th, 2010 5:45 pm ET

    Does this apply to the SEX OFFENDERS who are raping and killing our children?????

    ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

    Probably not......since:

    1. They are almost ALWAYS tried in State corts and end up in State prisons;

    and,

    2. They almost ALWAYS get life imprisonment.......or the death penalty for raping and killing a child.

    FWIW.

    March 30, 2010 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  11. HypocriCNNonsense

    For Christ Sakes, Please Tell Me The Historical Importance Of Laughing In The Supreme Court? We Already Know That Most Of Them Are Nothing But A Joke, Just Ask Cheif Justice (Crybaby...Waaaa!) Roberts.

    March 30, 2010 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  12. Dan Felshin

    Jack- I'm glad you mentioned that vengeance belongs to God alone. I certainly wouldn't want Jusus to get involved in vengeance. He'd be terrible at it.

    March 30, 2010 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  13. shoegazer

    Probably the most unlikely looking comedy troupe I've ever laid eyes on.

    March 30, 2010 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  14. Larry

    Unfortunately the five conservative nutjobs think they are supreme beings not just judges.

    March 30, 2010 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  15. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    These guys get paid enough to laugh everyday and everyday thereafter.

    March 30, 2010 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  16. PaulC

    Your in prison for Gods sake! It's very easy to be good....

    March 30, 2010 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  17. to sssimon

    It's clear you've never bothered reading one of the many opinions written by Justice Thomas, though you've read what many have unfairly said about him.

    March 30, 2010 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  18. Save 'em in the womb, so a "christian" holy war can send 'em to the tomb

    Guess you had to be there.

    March 30, 2010 07:42 pm at 7:42 pm |
  19. "Tea Party Texan"

    Our good monkey President spoke up and said the HERITAGE GROUP was behind his plan. By no means are they. WILL THE SUPREME COURT DO SOMETHING WITH THIS MAN WHO SHOULD NOT BE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. FOR NON-CITIZiAN AND ALSO BEING A LIAR.

    March 30, 2010 08:28 pm at 8:28 pm |
  20. BUCKAROO

    Maybe I am just looking the wrong way at the picture, but do the right- wing judges appear to be looking right? Does this mean they can only see one way? All the time?

    March 30, 2010 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |