Thank you for reading The Marble Palace Blog, which I hope will inform and surprise you about the Supreme Court of the United States. My name is Tony Mauro. I’ve covered the Supreme Court since 1979 and for ALM since 2000. I semiretired in 2019, but I am still fascinated by the high court. I’ll welcome any tips or suggestions for topics to write about. You can reach me at [email protected]
During the laborious four days of confirmation hearings last month, Justice-to-be Ketanji Brown Jackson was applauded for the “judicial independence” she pledged to abide by.
In a small way, she already showed her independence from Justice Stephen Breyer, for whom she clerked, and the justice she will succeed.
When Jackson was asked to discuss concerns about amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, she pronounced the word amicus with a hard “AM,” as in AM-uh-kuss. But she surely must have known that Breyer, an Anglophile by marriage, called it a-MY-kuss with a hard “MY,” a pronunciation that is rarely uttered on this side of the Atlantic. Breyer used the British pronunciation as recently as March 23. The typical pronunciation these days is a somewhat softer sounding uh-mee-kuss. So Jackson is taking her own friendly path.
I first noticed Breyer’s odd formulation in 1997, when I wrote for Legal Times about the Supreme Court argument in Lambrix v. Singletary, a habeas corpus case. More than once, Breyer asked Matthew Lawry, lawyer for the plaintiff in the case, to comment on the amicus curiae briefs that had been filed with the court.
Unsurprisingly, Breyer used the British pronunciation “a-MY-kuss” each time he mentioned the briefs. I wrote that “the hapless lawyer before [Breyer] … adopted the same, clearly incorrect pronunciation, just to be accommodating.”
Much to my surprise, renowned New York Times reporter William Safire, who wrote a popular “On Language” column at the time, picked up on my article.
Safire said of Lawry’s handling of the situation, “I cannot fault the solo practitioner before him for going along with the a-MY-cusses from the bench. He probably said to himself: ‘I’ll pronounce it any cockamamie way Breyer likes, as long as he comes down for Lambrix.’ In the long history of that honorable Court, it is unlikely that any lawyer has corrected a Justice’s pronunciation.”
In his article, Safire also reached out to wordsmith guru Bryan Garner for advice on the pronunciation. ”Justice Breyer has adopted an Anglo-Latin pronunciation,” Garner responded. “It will make any Latin teacher apoplectic. But it has English and American history behind it, and that, in the end, matters more than how Cicero might have mouthed the phrase.”
Lawry, now an assistant federal community defender in Philadelphia, said in an interview that he really did not think about how to pronounce amicus during the argument in 1997. “As far as any conscious thought that ‘oh, that’s how to pronounce it,’ I really don’t know,” Lawry said.
Justice-to-be Jackson’s next linguistic hurdle may come with the word “certiorari,” another Latin word that has a rainbow of pronunciations. In 2014, Regent University law professor James Duane wrote in a whimsical study for The Green Bag legal journal that justices are “profoundly divided” over the pronunciation of certiorari, with at least seven variations. Justice Clarence Thomas’ version is especially unusual, beginning with “sertzee” and continuing with something like “oh-RARE-eye.”
But in the case of certiorari, there may now be something of a reprieve for the justices. For years, when Thomas announced his decisions (in summary form) from the bench, he would start off by using his version, as in “This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari” from whatever lower court came before.
But because of the pandemic, opinion announcements have not been spoken from the bench. So, uttering “certiorari” at the court is a vanishing point of interest—one of several that have withered away because of the pandemic push toward all-digital dissemination.