Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Oral argument in the supreme court has seen many changes over the years. In the early days of the Republic, counsel would often spend hours, sometimes days, arguing a single case. At that time, oral argument, rather than briefing, was the primary vehicle for counsel to communicate their points to the court. Over time, the emphasis switched from speaking to writing, and oral arguments got shorter--down to two hours shortly after the Civil War, to one hour in the early 20th Century, then to the current limit of 30 minutes in the late 1960's. How justices have used that time has also changed. Until the mid-1980's, it was common for justices to ask just a few questions--if any--during oral argument. It was much more an advocate's chance to pitch their view of the case. But all that changed with Justice Scalia's appointment in 1986, as his extensive questioning prompted other justices to take a more active role during arguments. One famous exception was Justice Thomas, who rarely spoke during argument, believing it rude to interrupt counsel's presentation.Before the pandemic, a "hot bench" was very much the norm, with most advocates having little time to make affirmative points between answering a bevy of questions from the court.
The pandemic changed all that, with the court opting to hold telephonic arguments with two new notable rules: (1) counsel had two minutes to say her piece and then (2) each justice had a set time in which to ask questions, uninterrupted by the other justices. Chief Justice Roberts kept the clock and enforced the time limits.
Some of these changes are here to stay, at least for now. SCOTUS this week released an updated oral argument guide ahead of returning to in-person oral arguments for OT 2021, which retains the pandemic changes and cautions counsel not to stray from a questioner's direction. A few thoughts on how this affects oral argument preparation and presentation going forward.
- Justice Thomas. All signs currently point to Justice Thomas continuing his active questioning at argument, since he will have a set time to ask questions without interrupting or being interrupted by anyone.
- Affirmative points. Going in to most oral arguments, counsel have a choice to make--start with an affirmative point, or pick up the conversation where it left off and start answering questions. Counsel can still take either tack in this new(ish) format, but I think counsel will tend to skew to making affirmative points, since this will be their best or only chance to control the topic of conversation.
- A little smoother? The new rules were somewhat awkward to enforce during telephonic arguments, as both the justices and counsel lacked visual cues to stop or start talking. In person, the rules should be a little smoother as the participants can see and react to each other.
- A little nicer? At its most hectic, oral argument can devolve a bit into a duel of perspectives with the justices sometimes speaking to other justices under the guise of questioning the advocate. I think the new format changes that dynamic a bit and makes the tone--for lack of a more lawyerly word--nicer. The justices are forced to deliberately triage their questions, but can't get interrupted by others and thus are not able to get into a back-and-forth with other justices.
Overall, I like the changes and think they improve both the tone and the presentation of argument. What do you think?