Oral argument Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Spoken presentation to the Supreme Court given by the litigants’ lawyers.

During oral argument, the justices question the lawyers about any arguments in the written briefs that may need further clarification before the argument receives the full confidence of the Court. In a few cases, oral arguments leave justices with a different impression of the case from that formed by reading the written briefs.

Oral arguments are scheduled on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays during the Court’s term between October and April. The justices hear about 168 arguments during that time, about four each day. Arguments before the Court begin with the clerk of the Court’s traditional cry:

>Oyez, oyez, oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.

The chief justice then calls the name and number of the case, and the first lawyer to speak traditionally opens with “Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.” Once argument begins, the advocate is interrupted frequently with questions from the bench.

An effective oralist answers questions from the bench while weaving the argument’s major points into the presentation. The respondent, who speaks after the petitioner, must address the concerns already addressed by the bench, incorporating that response into his or her major arguments. The justices do not allow advocates to read at any length. Advocates do not speak when the justices are asking questions and always remain respectful of the Court.

In the nineteenth century, oral arguments could last for two or three days. The flamboyant styles of such advocates as Daniel WebsterWebster, Daniel and Henry Clay made Court hearings popular with the public. In 1849 arguments were limited to two hours for each side. In 1971, during Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s tenure (1969-1986), oral arguments were reduced to thirty minutes for each side in response to the increasing caseload that faced the Court. The appellant is allowed to reserve some of that thirty minutes for rebuttal after hearing the appellee’s argument. Time limits are strictly enforced. A white light on counsel’s lectern indicates five minutes remain, and a red light signals time has ended.

Oral arguments are not broadcast; therefore, the only way to hear them is to attend the Court’s sessions. However, transcripts of the arguments are available.


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Categories: History