Supreme Court Report

Oyez website finds sponsors to take over its Supreme Court audio archives

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The future of Oyez, the website devoted to audio recordings of U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, was up in the air earlier this year as founder Jerry Goldman approached retirement. At stake was a vault filled with Supreme Court history accessible free to the public.

Goldman, 71, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, had started the Oyez Project in 1993 to make Supreme Court audio available to a mass audience. But with annual operating costs of as much as $500,000—and Goldman having expressed interest in being compensated for his years of sweat equity—it was unclear who would be willing to take over the project.

In late May, however, Oyez and its nearly 8,000 hours of Supreme Court audio found a new home at Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, a nonprofit site that provides extensive free legal collections on the web, with help from Justia, the online legal publisher.

“They figured out how they can make this work,” says Goldman about the new partners.

“This arrangement is a gift to us,” says Thomas R. Bruce, the co-founder and director of the LII at Cornell. “We’re delighted to be hosting the thing.”


Although news stories this past winter suggested Goldman was seeking as much as $1 million in payments for the project, all sides declined to discuss the financial details. The understanding is that Oyez is being donated to LII, and that financial support from Justia will keep it going.

“There are a number of people who have participated in the care and maintenance of Oyez over the years, most recently the people at Chicago-Kent College of Law,” Bruce says. “Oyez is the gold standard of historical Supreme Court materials.”

The Supreme Court installed a recording system in October 1955, just after its historic arguments and decisions in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation cases. The reel-to-reel tapes were given to the National Archives, where scholars could gain access to them. But they were hardly user-friendly.

Paul R. Baier, a law professor at Louisiana State University Law Center in Baton Rouge, was a Supreme Court fellow in the 1975 term, when he not only heard historic arguments firsthand in the courtroom but also learned about the tapes stored at the National Archives.

Baier recalls listening to the arguments in New York Times Co. v. United States, the 1971 case about government objections to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of the Vietnam War leaked to the newspaper.

Baier was enthralled as he heard then-U.S. Solicitor General Erwin N. Griswold face off with Justice Hugo L. Black and other members of the court. (Baier later had a chance to discuss the case with Griswold, who was surprised to learn the tapes existed.)

“I thought: What gold there is in here,” Baier says. He wrote a journal article in 1984 extolling a “tapes method” of teaching cases in law school with audio from the Supreme Court collection.

But the tapes in the National Archives had only limited availability until 1993, when Peter H. Irons, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, challenged the status quo by making copies of the tapes of significant oral arguments, and publishing a book-and-tape set called May It Please the Court, which featured abridged versions of historic cases.

That project certainly didn’t please then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and the high court made rumblings about suing Irons. But the court backed down, and the book sold briskly. Duplication restrictions on the Supreme Court recordings at the archives were removed.

Goldman was a political science professor at Northwestern University at the time, and he has said the idea of creating a multimedia Supreme Court experience had come to him while he watched Chicago Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

His summertime musings led to the Oyez Project, which was named for the Anglo-Norman phrase for “hear ye” that marks the traditional opening of a Supreme Court session by the court’s marshal.

Goldman’s team—his research team, not the Cubs—faced challenges as it sought to digitize the archives’ collection of Supreme Court proceedings. The court’s equipment sometimes recorded too quickly or too slowly, making the justices sound a bit pitchy. In some years, the court’s proceedings were recorded at a low-quality setting, and for other years the blank tapes were manufactured in a way that only later was found to lead to rapid degradation.

The court was also inconsistent about whether it recorded or turned over tapes of opinion announcements—court sessions when the author of the majority opinion reads a short summary and when a dissenter occasionally reads from the bench as well.

Such opinion announcements, in fact, are the hidden gems of the Oyez collection, since the court itself now posts audio of its oral arguments at the end of every argument week (though not with the bells and whistles that Oyez provides, such as a transcript that moves with the audio).

The opinion announcements are posted each fall, after the completion of a term. So, for the 2014-15 term, listeners can hear Justice Anthony M. Kennedy extol how “since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives,” in Obergefell v. Hodges, the June 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Or they can listen to Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissent in Glossip v. Gross, in which he and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “state our belief that the time has come for the court to again consider … whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.” They conclude that it probably isn’t.

And in one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s last opinion statements from the bench, and one of the more unusual, he delivered a rebuttal to Breyer’s June 2015 dissent in Glossip.

“Maybe we should celebrate the fact that two justices are willing to kill the death penalty outright instead of pecking it to death,” said Scalia, who died in February.

“You have these justices and their spoken words at your fingertips,” says Baier. “Oyez is just a terrific tool for teachers.”


Goldman says he considered re-upping his contract at Chicago-Kent, but that would have required that he keep teaching, which he was ready to give up.

“I feel like Jerry Lee Lewis, always being asked to play ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,’ ” he says.

Goldman says he is satisfied that Oyez will be in good hands with the Legal Information Institute as its “chief steward.”

Bruce, the LII director, says the addition of Oyez will prompt the institute to renovate its other Supreme Court materials, which include case summaries.

“We’re still figuring out what we want to do, with the short answer being that Oyez is not going to look any different, at least not immediately,” Bruce says. “It’s sort of at the Hippocratic stage. We don’t want to do any harm.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Hear Ye! Oyez website finds sponsors to take over its Supreme Court audio archives.”

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