In the late 1980s, I was invited to participate in a project designed to help the Supreme Court of India address a backlog of cases that stretched back a decade. One obvious problem, it seemed to me, was that oral argument for a single case could span days or, in important matters, more than a week, as argument seemed to give rise to lengthy flights of oratory. On my second day in New Delhi, I met with members of their Supreme Court bar. Soon after the meeting began, one practitioner sought to confirm that the U.S. Supreme Court limited oral argument to 30 minutes per side. Upon receiving an affirmative answer to that question, he then asked, “how do you even warm up?”
The events of that morning recurred to me when I read the Supreme Court’s recent announcement that it was adopting a new procedure as oral argument returned to the courtroom after a pandemic-period process of argument by telephone. The procedure for telephone arguments gave the advocate two uninterrupted minutes to introduce the argument, followed by two minutes of questioning by each justice, seriatim, in order of descending seniority. The procedure was a significant departure from the free-for-all arguments that earned the Court the reputation as a hot bench.
That type of fast and furious questioning during in-court oral argument is often associated with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who showed no reticence in lobbing question after question at counsel even during his freshman term. Scalia’s then-unusual amount of questioning reportedly caused Justice Lewis Powell to wonder if the new justice even realized the rest of them were there. By the time Justice Clarence Thomas joined the Court, nearly all justices had adopted an active questioning style, though Thomas, believing it was important to let the advocates speak, remained largely silent for years at a time. During the pandemic’s telephone procedure, though, Thomas, as the senior associate justice, became a regular questioner, showing that procedural changes in oral argument can affect its dynamics.
As the Court gets underway for the new term, it has adopted a combination of the two procedures. Advocates will still experience 30 minutes of sharp questioning, but then time is added to allow the justices to ask additional questions in order of seniority, just as they did when arguments were conducted by phone. One of my co-bloggers has already expressed approval of the new format https://tinyurl.com/2r49ufkc. I’m more skeptical.
Although the Court has admonished advocates to “respond directly to the questions posed,” rather than make “additional arguments not responsive to the question,” some oralists, no doubt will find the opportunity to relate an answer to an argument not yet covered in the courtroom irresistible. Those who can do that seamlessly will likely get away with it. One obvious change is that the new procedure is likely to extend oral argument to unknowable lengths of time. Perhaps the justices will have asked all their questions in the earlier period, but that seems unlikely. The extra time will not just lengthen the arguments, but will likely shift oral argument strategy, based on the knowledge that some issues the advocate purposely reserves are likely to be aired during the justice-by-justice round.
In addition, the new procedure may change a justice’s decision about when to ask a question. Some justices may choose to forego a question during the unstructured argument time because another justice is forcefully seeking an answer to something else during that earlier period. Rather than interrupt the line of questioning as often occurred in the past, a justice may reserve the issue for the latter time period. Doing so, however, could be a disservice. The answer elicited may show the issue to be a critical one that deserves more time for exploration than might remain, which may not have been true if raised earlier.
Moreover, when questions are posed in order of seniority, particularly subsequent to the usual oral-argument period, the number of questions left unasked will diminish by the time the more junior justices have their turns. If the junior justices begin to appear mute as the formal questioning ends, courtwatchers and the public may mistakenly take away a false impression of disinterest. To combat that image, a junior justice may feel impelled to jump into the conversation more actively in the earlier part of the argument than they might otherwise choose to do. The result will undoubtedly affect the nature of oral argument, but in an artificial way.
Appellate lawyers – and appellate courts – will watch closely as the new procedure is implemented. Advocates will adjust their strategies, the Court itself may tinker with the procedure as experience suggests changes, and federal circuit courts may choose to adopt it or a variant on it for their own arguments. When telephone arguments were in place, Chief Justice John Roberts kept a firm hand on limiting the justices to their allotted questioning time. The new procedure, which has no apparent time limits on the justices’ questions or the responses, may call for even more stark time management – perhaps even as strict as those enforced by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who, when time was up, could stop an advocate in the middle of the word “if.” With the new term commencing October 4, many people will be watching the process of oral argument with the same intensity as they scrutinize the merits of the arguments themselves.