Legal humor is a topic of perennial appeal, and has long been a prolific source of books, articles, and scholarly commentaries which are avidly consumed by popular and professional audiences alike. However, although a number of scholars have analyzed the use of humor in judicial opinions, there is no comparable body of scholarly examinations of lawyers' use of humor in their role as legal advocates. This omission is significant, because in the American legal system, humor and wordplay serve as highly-valued evidence of forensic skill which is deemed appropriate for display both within and outside of the courtroom. Accordingly, this paper attempts to fill the gap in the existing literature by examining attorneys' use of humor as persuasive advocacy in two widely divergent settings, informal court-mandated mediation and oral argument before the United States Supreme Court. In these data, the attorneys use humor aggressively to ridicule the plaintiffs' claims, depicting them as laughable and unworthy of serious consideration, while placing themselves at the center of a comic performance which allows them to display their linguistic skills. These data thus demonstrate that humor can be a potent weapon in an attorney's arsenal.
Although the United States Supreme Court plays a pivotal role in American government and American law, its opinions have seldom been the subject of linguistic analysis. Yet these opinions provide fertile ground for sociolinguistic and discourse analytic research. The American common-law system, with its rich rhetorical tradition of adversarial argumentation and judgemade precedents, furnishes the context in which the Court's decision-making takes place; however, the discursive processes by which the Court's opinions are structured have rarely been examined. This paper presents an analysis of Rasul v. Bush, in which foreign nationals detained as ‘enemy combatants’ at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, challenged the legality of their detention. By examining the parties' development of competing characterizations of the relevant events, I explore the role of adversarial argumentation in legal decision-making. By tracing the manner in which the Court draws upon these characterizations while framing its decision as grounded in existing law, I present an analysis of the intertextual processes of text construction by which the Court produces its decision as an authoritative legal text that both maintains and transforms existing law.