We've written in the past about an advocate before the Supreme Court who taught Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. a new vocabulary word: romanette, an obscure but self-explaining word for lower-case roman numerals.
This morning, the new word du jour was "orthogonal," a mainly mathematical term for things that are perpendicular or at right angles to each other. University of Michigan law professor Richard Friedman, arguing for the plaintiffs in the Confrontation Clause case of Briscoe v. Virginia today, used the word in a broader sense to signify propositions that are extraneous or irrelevant to each other.
Friedman, who has made his name studying and arguing for the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, was vigorously defending the doctrine this morning when Justice Anthony Kennedy asked a hypothetical question. Friedman acknowledged Kennedy had raised a valid issue that will be raised in a future case, but it was not pertinent to the case at hand. "I think that issue is entirely orthogonal to the issue here," Friedman said.
Roberts interrupted. "I'm sorry. Entirely what?"
As if reading from a dictionary, Friedman replied, "Orthogonal. Right angle. Unrelated. Irrelevant."
"Oh," said Roberts, and Justice Antonin Scalia chimed in, "What was that adjective? I liked that."
Sheepishly, Friedman repeated it, and Kennedy said with a smile, "I knew this case presented us a problem."
As laughter rose, Scalia said, "I think we should use that in the opinion." Roberts interjected, "Or the dissent."
Friedman confessed, "That is a bit of professorship creeping in, I suppose."
But then he deftly got the argument back on track. The exchange was a welcomed break in the somewhat technical arguments of the morning, and in the end probably won't impact the outcome. In fact, you might call the whole thing orthogonal.
More later today on the oral arguments in Briscoe at nlj.com.
UPDATE: This post was corrected Jan. 12 to reflect that Roberts, not Scalia, said, "Or the dissent" in the exchange above."