Sounds of the Supreme Court, courtesy of Chicago Cubs

You still can’t watch Supreme Court proceedings on TV, but you can eavesdrop on them. Oral arguments presented to the Supreme Court have been audio-recorded since 1955 [who knew?], and at Oyez, you can listen to many of them. The Oyez Project is a multimedia archive devoted to the Supreme Court of the United States and its work. It aims to be a complete and authoritative source for all audio recorded in the Court.

The Oyez Project provides access to more than 7,000 hours of Supreme Court audio. Oyez’s goal is to create a public, searchable archive of all audio recorded in the Court since 1955. Currently, the collection covers all audio from 1981 through the current term. Oyez plans to continue updating its archive until it can offer access to all audio recorded in the Court since 1955.

The name, “Oyez,” comes from the phrase by which the Marshall of the Court calls the courtroom to order. Oyez is pronounced “o-yay” or “o-yez” or “o-yes.” It is used three times in succession to introduce the opening of a court of law. The origin of the word “Oyez” is Middle English: It’s the plural imperative of oyer, which comes from the Latin verb “audire,” which means to hear. Thus, oyez means “hear ye,” a call for silence and attention.

The website offers a great recording of the “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” announcement by the Marshall of the Supreme Court. Hearing it, you have to wonder who originated that particular phrasing, rhythm and intonation. Listen to it here. [It would make an unusual and apt ringtone for a cell phone, if one knew how to edit and adapt it.]

Oyez is a fascinating and easy-to-navigate website that offers a fly-on-the-wall audio record of Supreme Court proceedings and announcements of decisions. You can search the audio archive by case or by year. Accompanying each recording is a full transcript, which is invaluable in helping the listener identify who is speaking. [FYI: In making oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiff and respondent each are allotted 30 minutes to make their cases. During that time, Supreme Court Justices may ask questions or make comments, but the clock does not stop for those interruptions to the presentation. You hear it all raw, including paper shuffling and throat clearing, on Oyez.] Oyez also reports the outcome of each case and offers a searchable database of Supreme Court Justices’ voting records.

For the Nina Totenberg’s among us [she reports on the Supreme Court for NPR], the recordings are business as usual. For the rest of us who have never had the opportunity to sit in on a Supreme Court hearing, they offer a reality check—the language and arguments are not what we’re used to on “Law & Order”—and a chance to hear the voices and judicial styles of Supreme Court Justices and top legal minds.  .

One has to marvel at the effort Oyez’s technical team has put into re-engineering the sound quality of many of the original reel-to-reel tapes, filling in gaps, and piecing together recordings that spanned multiple reels, before digital recording became the standard.

The founders of Oyez also have been instrumental in getting public access to the formerly sequestered audio archives. According to the website, initially,

“the recordings were principally for use by the justices and their clerks. The Court agreed to archive them at the National Archives and Records Administration. The tapes sat there for years, available to researchers and scholars provided that they agreed to use them for educational and research purposes only and promised not to duplicate them for commercial purposes.

In 1993, Peter Irons, a political scientist at the University of California, challenged those restrictions by producing a set of 6 audio cassettes and transcripts containing excerpts from 23 constitutional cases. The Court considered legal remedies against Irons, who claimed that the agreement was a violation of public policy. The press had a field day reporting the story by providing excerpts from the tapes. In the end, the Court backed down from its threat. May It Please The Court (New Press) sold upwards of 75,000 copies. The new policy for accessing the tapes imposed no limit on their use.

Professor Jerry Goldman determined it was important to have access to the unabridged recordings, without interruptions or editorials. With the dawn of Internet-based streaming media, it was possible to provide the public with instant access to entire arguments. Thus began The Oyez Project as a web-based audio archive.

The origins of Oyez offer a humorous footnote to an otherwise serious endeavor. The website’s FAQ’s include the following description:

The Oyez Project began in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field in the late 1980s as the Chicago Cubs continued to break the hearts of its many diehard fans. It was during one such game that the idea of creating a multimedia-based Supreme Court experience took root. The first iteration was a series of complex HyperCard stacks built on a baseball-card metaphor. The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court” demonstrated the power of multimedia integration with serious academic content.

So, the perennially hapless Chicago Cubs can at least be credited—by creating an atmosphere in which fans wanted to talk about anything else but the game in front of them—for sparking a conversation out of which something positive evolved.

drawing: Jackson Daily Record