U.S. Supreme Court

Opposing counsel call each other 'friend' in increasingly popular SCOTUS lingo


The Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is increasingly using the word “friend” to refer to opposing counsel in oral arguments, a term also picked up by the lawyers appearing before the court.

In 2013, the word “friend” became the most common word for opposing counsel, overtaking “opponent,” the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports.

The Wall Street Journal did a word count from court transcripts with the help of Philip Resnik, director of the University of Maryland Computational Linguistics and Information Processing Laboratory. The Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Oyez Project supplied the transcripts.

The word “friend” was used 130 times in 2013, compared to just three times in 2004, the last full year before Roberts became chief justice. Among the justices who use the word are Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.

The term became more popular with the appointment of U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who doesn’t use any other term to refer to his opponent. He told the Wall Street Journal he thinks he picked up the word “friend” from watching Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with some Supreme Court litigators about their adoption of the word “friend” to describe opposing counsel. SCOTUSblog co-founder Tom Goldstein acknowledged he is using the word more often (at least two dozen times before the Roberts court, the story says).

“We take cues from the chief justice,” Goldstein told the newspaper.

Carter Phillips never referred to his opponent as “friend” before the Roberts court, but now he uses only “friend” or “colleague,” the Wall Street Journal says. Pillips told the newspaper he “had no idea in the world” his word choice had changed.

Phillips’ statement wouldn’t surprise Resnik. “Below the level of consciousness,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “we often match our language to that of somebody who is more powerful in a given situation.”

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