When the United States Supreme Court heard high-profile cases this past term—including the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act—Americans could hear every word exchanged between justices and lawyers during oral arguments thanks to audio recordings released by the Supreme Court. The exchanges gave both legal pundits and the public some initial clues as to how the justices viewed these big issues, with expert analysis of the recordings spurring predictions about how the high court might rule.
IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Jerry Goldman says Americans get a better sense of the Supreme Court and its decisions when hearing the Court in action, rather than reading just a transcript or news story.
“The more access the public has to our highest courts, the stronger our democracy can work,” Goldman says.
This belief has driven Goldman to spend decades assembling the country’s largest collection of audio of the U.S. Supreme Court. Dubbed the Oyez® Project, the archive is currently housed at Chicago-Kent and contains nearly 14,000 hours of recordings from more than 8,100 cases. Oyez means “listen!” in French, and the Marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court recites the words when the justices arrive in the courtroom.
Although Supreme Court recordings have been recorded since the 1950s, they were not initially meant for the public, and until the 1990s, most Americans never heard them. The Oyez Project was created to make the work of the Supreme Court accessible to everyone, be it through text, audio, or other media.
Not only can visitors download recordings from any Supreme Court case for free, they also have access to supporting documents and information that explain the context and history.
“In my judgment, there is more public awareness of the work of the Court, and my mission is to make sure the public understands it—not from a technical or legal perspective, but from a simple, plain-English perspective,” Goldman says. “What is this case about? What are the facts? What happened to the individual who brought this case after the Court decided?”
Goldman brought the Oyez Project to Chicago-Kent in 2011 from Northwestern University, where he started the project 20 years ago when he saw the potential for technology to reshape access to information and data.
Chicago-Kent law students have the opportunity to work as paid research assistants on the Oyez Project and do everything from identifying speakers in recordings to collecting documents that might enhance the public’s understanding of a case. Goldman also teaches a seminar on the Supreme Court and has taken students to Washington, D.C., to hear oral arguments at the Supreme Court and to tour the facilities. Past participants have met Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and on another occasion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Goldman says of those meetings, “The students were thrilled because they had never been to the Court and had never been treated like [Supreme Court] insiders before.”
With the U.S. Supreme Court archive now complete and up to date, the Oyez Project has begun to expand into other ventures. Goldman’s joint collaboration with fellow IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Carolyn Shapiro yielded the iSCOTUSnow smart phone app, which provides free access to recordings, documents, and transcriptions for cases on the current U.S. Supreme Court docket.
Thanks to a grant from the James L. Knight Foundation, the Oyez Project will also soon include multimedia archives for the state Supreme Courts of California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. Like the U.S. Supreme Court project, the state Supreme Court archives will offer audio and/or video from oral arguments, case supporting documents, and background information on the justices. Goldman says his ultimate goal is to create digital archives for the public for all state Supreme Courts and federal appeals courts.
“There are really important questions that come before the state high courts and the public needs to have an easy way to grasp that. We’re going to provide that easy way,” says Goldman.
He says decisions from the state Supreme Courts generally have a greater impact on people’s lives than the U.S. Supreme Court. “The [U.S.] Supreme Court gets lots of attention, but who’s covering the Illinois Supreme Court or the New York Court of Appeals? Not too many press people today.”
Goldman, 68, wants to ensure the long-term viability of the Oyez Project when he eventually steps away from it and retires. He describes the Oyez Project as a public service and hopes to keep it available for free for years to come.
He says, “If we can do a good job at a good value proposition, and we can find a way to do this at very low cost with real benefit to the public and the courts, I think we can continue this for a long time.”