How The Court Works | Oral Argument

Opening formalities link the current day to the past. The Marshal or Deputy Marshal acts as Crier. A few minutes before 10 a.m., Crier and Clerk, formally dressed in cutaways, go to their desks below the ends of the high bench. Pencils, pens, papers, briefs, and a pewter mug of water are at each Justice’s place.

At their tables, attorneys glance over notes or confer softly. A young lawyer may fidget slightly, while a veteran checks his watch. Seconds will count, for today each counsel has only 30 minutes—unless he or she has a very unusual case. Before each chair at the four counsel tables, lie white goose-quill pens, neatly crossed; most lawyers appear before the Court only once, and gladly take the quills home as souvenirs. Snuffboxes, once indispensable, vanished long ago, along with arguments that lasted for hours and soared to splendid heights of oratory.

Meanwhile, the Justices, summoned by buzzer, gather in their conference room. Each shakes hands with all the others, even if they were chatting a few minutes earlier. Chief Justice Fuller instituted the unvarying custom as a sign that "harmony of aims if not views is the Court’s guiding principle."

Promptly at 10 o’clock the Crier begins to bring down her gavel. Everyone rises instantly as she intones: "The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States!"

As the Crier speaks, the nine Justices stride through openings in the curtains and move to their places. The Crier chants the call for silence: "Oyez! Oyez!! Oyez!!!" From the centuries that Anglo-Norman or "law French" was the language of English courts, the word for "Hear ye!" survives.

Steady-voiced, the Crier continues: "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 gavel falls again. The Justices and all others take their seats. Visitors unacquainted with the Court can quickly check identifications against seating charts. In the center sits Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., who began his Supreme Court career as a law clerk to Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist. Seniority determines the seating of the eight Associate Justices, alternating between the Chief’s right and his left.

 

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Argument is easier for all to follow since the Justices approved a change in the shape of their bench. "I remember when I used to argue cases here," a senior lawyer recalls. "I would get two questions at once, from opposite ends of the bench—the Justices couldn’t see or hear each other." In 1972 the shape of the bench was altered to its present shape, with two wings each set at an 18-degree angle, a form that has been widely used in American courts since the mid-1950s.

Even the technical cases can stir attention as the lawyer begins—"Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court…"—and develops his or her theme—"…insurance companies are entitled to justice like anybody else…" The questions start: brisk, no-nonsense queries from the Justices.

At times the proceedings seem much like an advanced seminar in constitutional law, with Justices and attorneys exchanging points of law and citing precedents. At other times the exchange is more like a cross-questioning, as when Justice Scalia probes into an attorney’s equivocal answers and concludes, "You say maybe yes, maybe no, you just don’t know."

An attorney used to this Court may take an unwelcome idea in stride: "Possibly, your honor, but I would suggest…." Or suavely field a question on what Congress intended in a statute: "…the Congress does many things that I wonder at…."

With veiled ruefulness a lawyer remarks, "I see my time is running short"; or the Chief Justice may offer a gentle reminder, "Counsel, you are now using up your rebuttal time." Or the other way around: "We have taken up much of your time with our questions; we will give you six more minutes." When a red light glows on the lectern, the Chief Justice says, "Thank you, Counsel, the case is submitted."

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