U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments

by Matt Morrison

  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding Supreme Court Oral Arguments
  3. Sources at Cornell Law Library
  4. Other Sources for Supreme Court Oral Arguments


As with records and briefs, reviewing the oral argument transcripts for cases heard before the Supreme Court can help a researcher explore and understand the arguments of each party, how the Court responded to those arguments, and the possible reasons why one party prevailed over the other. As well, researchers may want to examine the dialogue between the justices and the attorneys in an individual case to gain insight into the issues presented in the case.


Before 1849, oral arguments before the Court were unrestricted. Often, the arguments continued for days and drew a large crowd. However, by the mid-1800s the Court's increasing caseload made long arguments impossible. Thus, in 1849 the Court adopted a rule, published at volume 48 U.S. Reports (7 Howard), that limited oral argument to two hours per side. This rule remained in effect until 1925 when the time was reduced to one hour per side. See 266 U.S. 673. In 1970, the time limit was reduced to the current practice of one half-hour per side when the court revised the oral argument rule at 398 U.S. 1058-59.

Perhaps the reduction in time for oral argument is best explained by Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who wrote in 1928 that the "progress of civilization is but little reflected in the processes of argumentation and a vast amount of time is unavoidably wasted in the Supreme Court in listening to futile discussion; this has the effect of reducing the time for cases which should be fully presented."

Today, there are several rules relevant to oral argument at the Supreme Court:

Rule 4, which sets the general timing of open sessions of the Court.

Rule 6 setting the rule for argument pro hac vice.

Rule 27 governing the calendar of cases to be argued before the Court.

Rule 28, specifying details of oral argument procedure, including the 30 minute time limitation.

The oral argument transcript includes the docket number, the date and time of the argument, the appearancesthe attorneys arguing on behalf of the parties and any attorneys appearing as amicus curiae (see Rule 28(7)) on behalf of petitioner or respondent, the Chief Justice's introduction of the argument, followed by the arguments of each side. If the petitioner reserves time for rebuttal, this is requested at the end of their initial argument. The attorneys appearing are identified by name in the transcript. Now, beginning with the October 2004 term, justices are identified by name when posing a question. Traditionally, when a justice asked a question it was simply labeled "Question" in the transcript. When looking at transcripts from prior terms, readers cannot identify the justice unless the attorney's response included the justice's name. Researchers unfamiliar with Supreme Court procedure may be surprised to find that the justices do not hesitate to jump in with questions.

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Title: The Complete Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States
Dates: 1952 - 2008/09 term (For the most recent oral arguments, see the Other Sources section below.)
Format: Microfiche
Location: Law Library 3rd floor, microform drawer 13A (Microfiche 118)

There are three print indexes to help locate documents in the set that cover from the October 1952 term to the October 1987 term. These include case name and docket indexes that reference to specific fiche numbers. These indexes are located on the shelving in the 3rd floor floor Microform Area as follows:

Index to 1952-1968 terms-KF101.9 .C719 1984
Index to 1969-1979 terms-KF101.9 .C72
Index to 1980-1987 terms-KF101.9 .C73

The following are selective sources available at the Law Library:

Title: Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States. This set includes oral argument summaries, abstracts, and texts of selected cases dating from 1793.
Format: Print
Location: Law Library 1st floor, KF101.8 .K97

Title: May it Please the Court: The Most Significant Oral Arguments Made Before the Supreme Court Since 1955. (1993)
Format: Sound cassettes
Location: Law Library Reserve, Reading Room, KF4748 .M46 1993

Title: Obscenity: The Complete Oral Arguments Before the Supreme Court in the Major Obscenity Cases. (1970)
Format: Print
Location: Law Library 2nd floor, KF9444 .A7 F91

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Supreme Court web site. Recent and archived transcripts. The Supreme Court site includes an Oral Arguments page. There are several items of interest linked from this page, including the Visitor's Guide to Oral Argument, Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued, Availability of Oral Argument Transcripts, Argument Transcripts, and Argument Audio. The site includes transcripts dating from the October 2000 term. These are organized by term and argument session. Transcripts are available within 10-15 days of argument.  Beginning with the October Term 2010, audio recordings of oral arguments are available for free and are posted on Fridays at the end of each argument week.  Also organized by term and argument session, the audio is available as MP3 files.

Oyez Project. Recent and archived transcripts. The Oyez Project provides more than 2000 hours of streaming audio of Supreme Court oral argument. It includes all cases since 1995, but also has many significant cases dating from pre-1995. Many transcripts are now available in MP3 format.

Lexis. Recent and archived transcripts. Lexis provides transcripts from October 1979 to current. Transcripts are available about two weeks after the argument. The file name is USTRAN.

Westlaw. Recent and archived transcripts. Westlaw provides transcripts from the October 1990 term to the present. Transcripts are available about two weeks after the argument. The database identifier is SCT-ORALARG. Also, users will notice a Briefs and Other Related Documents link when viewing a case on Westlaw. Follow this to a list of links including the oral argument transcript for the case. (This list of related documents is actually found at the end of the case text.)

Alderson Reporting. Alderson is the Supreme Court's courtroom reporter and can provide transcripts, for a fee, more quickly than other sources. The company's web site provides details.

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- Matt Morrison -