Most days, the phrase "courtroom humor" is an oxymoron. But at least once a year it blooms without self-contradiction at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., as Supreme Court justices, D.C. Circuit judges, and top lawyers mix it up to present a mock trial based one of the seanson's plays. The mock trials, attended by hordes of local lawyers, have been staged every year since 1994, and since 2003 the presiding justice has been Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Last night's event, which sold out in two hours when tickets were first offered in February, was based on Oscar Wilde's 1895 play An Ideal Husband. The scenario centers on a woman who tells a New Jersey member of Congress she will release an embarrassing letter he wrote 20 years earlier, unless he makes a speech on the House floor supporting the construction of a new tunnel between New Jersey and New York. (She stands to profit if the tunnel is built.) After much soul-searching, the congressman ends up denouncing the project on the House floor. The woman then releases the letter, and the congressman accuses her of extortion. After she is convicted under the federal blackmail statute, she challenges the law as unconstitutional, arguing in part that the floor speech she sought is not "a valuable thing," so does not fit the definition of blackmail.
Serving on the "court" alongside Ginsburg were Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor, and D.C. Circuit judges Douglas Ginsburg, David Tatel, Merrick Garland and Brett Kavanaugh.
Alito could not resist some home state chauvinism, suggesting at one point that a tunnel bringing New Jerseyans into New York would "raise the intellectual level" of New York. And Sotomayor gave a nod to "one of my absent colleagues" when she asked a Scalia-like question about the text of the statute.
But most of the humor came from the advocates. Beth Wilkinson, a D.C. partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, represented the woman convicted of bribery, arguing that what was involved was "not blackmail, it was politics." Asking whether a speech on the floor of the House was "a thing of value," she said, "I almost need not say more." Her client, Wilkinson said, was "asking for nothing" and "spoke truth to power."
Garland then asked her hypothetically whether it would have been a crime if the woman demanded the member of Congress go on Meet the Press, which can be watched for free, rather than give a speech on the floor of the House. Given the widespread laughter that question prompted, it was clear that most of the savvy audience members knew that Wilkinson's husband, who was in the audience, is David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press. Diplomatically, Wilkinson told Garland, "You've answered your own question."
Representing the government in defense of the bribery conviction was Acting D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan, who seemed calm and collected at the end of what must have been a busy day. (His boss, Mayor Vincent Gray, had been arrested at the Capitol in a demonstration protesting the budget deal.)
Nathan managed to make humorous references to the Tea Party and to Charlie Sheen in his opening remarks, and quoted from the writings of a judge named Ginsburg. Nathan did that, he joked, because "30% of the panel tonight is named Ginsburg." When Nathan also made a comment about "two fully loaded SUVs," Garland warned him to "be careful," noting "you are only acting attorney general." (Earlier this year, the DC City Council chairman got into some trouble for making use of two "fully-loaded" Lincoln Navigators.) Nathan also said his adversary's argument had "more holes than a Southwest Airline."
In spite of, or berhaps because of, Nathan's stand-up routine, both the court and the audience voted in favor of upholding the conviction. Justice Ginsburg dissented. From the stage of the Shakespeare Thatre, the court stood adjourned until next year.