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Scalia: The English teacher

If you argue before the Supreme Court, there are many things you must remember – things that have absolutely nothing to do with your case. For example, never refer to a justice by the wrong name. Never refer to a statute if the text of that statute is not in your brief. And now we have another rule: never, ever use a word that doesn’t exist in the English language. That will irk Justice Antonin Scalia.

Attorney Randolph Barnhouse learned that lesson yesterday. During his oral argument he first used the word “inchoate,” which means not completely formed. So far, so good.

But then, in reaching to find an antonym, Barnhouse used the word “choate.” That’s when Scalia piped up.

“There is no such adjective,” Scalia said. “I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as ‘choate.’ There is ‘inchoate,’ but the opposite of ‘inchoate’ is not ‘choate.’”

“All right,” Barnhouse said, wanting to move on to the substance of his argument. But Scalia wasn’t done.

“It’s like ‘gruntled,’” Scalia said, dropping the “dis” from “disgruntled.”

“Well I’m wrong on the [word], but I think I’m right on the law, Your Honor,” Barnhouse said. But Scalia didn’t seem to hear him.

“Exactly. ‘Disgruntled’  - and the opposite of ‘disgruntled’ is ‘gruntled,’” Scalia said, not letting it go.

“Is ‘gruntled,” Barnhouse said, finally playing along as the audience laughed.

HT to the AP’s Mark Sherman.

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