The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Several sites are claiming that President Obama "crack[ed a] joke about [Justice Antonin] Scalia's death" at the National Governors Association conference yesterday; I've already gotten an outraged e-mail about this. But I don't think the joke is about Justice Scalia's death—it's a joke about the difficulty that the president expects in getting a Supreme Court nominee confirmed:
Some of you might be in the final year of your last term, working as hard as you can to get as much done as possible for the folks that you represent: fixing roads, educating our children, helping people retrain, appointing judges [- brief pause -] the usual stuff.
This was followed by laughter from the audience, and a smile followed by a grimace from the president; the grimace, whether deliberately or not, seemed to convey that the president expects the confirmation (or non-confirmation) process to be unpleasant. It's a small joke, but one that seemed to understand his audience well, since governors sometimes face similar problems.
This strikes me as not at all in bad taste. The president wasn't saying anything snide or even critical about the late justice, or mocking the justice's views or accomplishments (which would indeed have been bad manners, in one government official publicly speaking about another who had recently died). He was engaging in some mild graveyard humor about an upcoming unpleasant political process; and that the process was occasioned by someone's death (more than a week earlier) doesn't make such humor inappropriate.