The Supreme Court has its own rules, but does it also have its own pronunciation guide?
It seemed that way during oral arguments on Monday in Costco Wholesale Corp. v. Omega, involving the “first-sale” doctrine in copyright law.
Roy Englert Jr., name partner in Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber, was in the middle of his argument on behalf of Costco, quoting a section of federal law about copyright infringement occurring “if this title had been applicable.” He pronounced the final word “ap-PLIK-a-bul,” which is listed as an acceptable pronunciation in most dictionaries.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who was already giving Englert a hard time on substantive matters, interrupted Englert to assert, “We say APP-lic-a-bul. Much prettier.”
Englert might have wondered why Scalia chose to make that correction at that moment, but he did not show it. “Okay, sir,” Englert said, and proceeded in his efficient, clipped speaking style. It’s a tribute to Englert’s cool that every other time he used the word in the argument, he adopted Scalia’s pronunciation without hesitation.
There is, in fact, no official pronunciation guide at the Supreme Court, but some justices have clear preferences. During the same argument on Monday, Justice Stephen Breyer put his signature spin on the pronunciation of “amicus,” as in “amicus curiae,” Latin for friend of the court.
An Anglophile by inclination and marriage, Breyer pronounced the word the way the British do, as “a-MIKE-us,” rather than either “AM-a-cus” or “a-ME-cus,” more commonly used by American lawyers. But Breyer does not insist that lawyers appearing before him pronounce it his way.
Footnote: Breyer and Scalia had their own amusing exchange during the otherwise dry Costco arguments, not over pronunciation, but over line drawing. Breyer was asking Englert where Congress had drawn the line in copyright law on the issue at hand. “Even I draw the line somewhere,” Breyer said in a self-deprecating way. The audience laughed, and Scalia, who thinks Breyer’s jurisprudence is unbounded, leaned forward and said, “Let me write that down.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.