Get that man some pure applesauce.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Nonsense at the Supreme Court

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Ever since Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia described the majority's analysis in King v. Burwell as "interpretive jiggery-pokery," the Internet has been all atwitter, tracking the phrase to its Scottish source. But aside from that traditional usage as a way of calling something absurd, jiggery-pokery is also a double-dactyl word, and therefore useful for those who enjoy nonsense rhymes. In fact, there is a special form of nonsense rhyme, also called a double dactyl, that seems particularly well suited to describe the last frantic week or so of the Supreme Court's term. Here are several double dactyls of my own, and an explanation of the very precise rules of rhyme and meter.

On King v. Burwell, the case that gave rise to Scalia's usage:

challengers say that "a
state" means a state.

Justices ruled by a
six-three majority,
reading is great.

That's a double-dactyl poem. The first line is a six-syllable nonsense word (such as jiggery-pokery or higgledy-piggledy) and the six syllables are divided into a pair of dactyls. A dactyl is DAH-da-da, so a double dactyl is DAH-da-da, DAH-da-da. The poem's meter is required to be just the way it sounds in the example above. The fourth and eighth lines rhyme. The sixth or seventh line must be a single double-dactyl word, and a real word, not nonsense (here, "counterintuitive").

With the rules in mind, here is a double dactyl on the gay-marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges:

Limiting marriage to
challenged in court.

Justices say rules are
Life-long love can come in
more than one sort.

I have been a fan of double dactyls since I first learned of them in my teens. Each fall, I hold a competition for my first-year law students, in which they write double dactyls about contracts cases. Double dactyls feature prominently in one of my novels. They are fun to write, and they teach discipline in writing. And, of course, they can be composed to make a point. 

Here is another, on Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency:

Federal agency
issued new regs without
counting the cost.

Claim that to do so was
got just four votes, so
the EPA lost.

And one about Justice Scalia himself:

Justice Scalia is
famous for writing in
phrases obscure.

Liberals call his views
but that he's right he is
always quite sure. 

Finally, let me close with a double dactyl on the current sad state of the court itself: 

Nine berobed justices
carping and snarling,
dissenting and such.

Gone are the great days when,
being unanimous
mattered so much!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Stephen L Carter at

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Stacey Shick at