Does the shape of the Supreme Court’s bench affect oral argument?

Posted Tue, March 27th, 2018 4:55 pm by Andrew Hamm

In the summer of 1969, shortly soon after his affirmation as main justice, Warren Burger stood at the lectern in his new courtroom. Burger faced a straight bench, with the justices’ chairs arranged in a line. Reminiscing for his clerks about his one oral argument right before the justices, he remembered that they held interrupting one an additional, presumably simply because they could not see or hear every single other nicely. “That problem must be changed,” Burger said, “… by curving the bench so every single Justice could see his colleagues.”

Ryan Black, Timothy Johnson and Ryan Owens relate this Burger story, initially documented in Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s landmark e-book, “The Brethren,” in an posting in the most current difficulty of the Journal of Supreme Court Background, “Chief Justice Burger and the Bench: How Bodily Altering the Form of the Court’s Bench Decreased Interruptions all through Oral Argument.”

All through the winter recess of the October 1971 term, Burger followed by way of on his options. Carpenters lower the pre-present bench and repositioned the three seats on possibly end at an angle to make the winged bench continue to employed these days.

The straight bench employed by the Supreme Court right before February 1972

Preliminary reaction among the justices was combined. The authors cite a observe Justice Harry Blackmun wrote to himself all through the 1st oral argument soon after the adjust, “New bench separates Brennan and White, hurrah!” Seemingly, Justices William Brennan and Byron White employed to chitchat all through oral argument. The greater separation between them caused by the new angle in the bench appeared to put a quit to that, at least for this 1st argument.

In distinction, Justice William O. Douglas called the adjust “as worthless and pointless as a man’s sixth Cadillac.”

Own assessments aside, the authors empirically examined no matter whether the new winged bench experienced the supposed effect of limiting interruptions. The American Bar Affiliation in 1971 “suggested this kind of an investigation could be warranted,” as the authors observe, but theirs is the 1st systematic attempt.

The authors analyzed the oral argument transcripts from the October 1962 to October 1982 phrases, a span that incorporates the 10 term phrases prior to and soon after the bench adjust. A computer system script assessed no matter whether a talking justice was followed by the advocate or an additional justice.

The authors uncovered that every single justice “benefitted” – “they all have been interrupted less typically soon after the bench adjust.” Additionally, the justices farthest from the middle of the bench – the most junior justices – turned “considerably less likely to be interrupted with the curved bench.” Because the main justice sits in the middle of the bench, Burger obtained the least gain from his own challenge. As the second most senior justice at the time, Douglas, who derided the new bench, was also among people whose location was not afflicted.

The authors also cite social-science conclusions about the relevance of “visual and auditory connections” in interaction. In accordance to the authors, this study reveals that “eye speak to can foster bigger cooperation among individuals” and “when persons are not able to hear, selection-making and collegiality can undergo.” The contribution these sensory dynamics make to group functioning is critical, the authors recommend, simply because in many techniques oral argument is a dialogue among the justices. As the authors estimate from Justice Anthony Kennedy:

When the persons come … to see our arguments, they typically see a dialogue between the justices inquiring a query and the legal professional answering it. And they consider of the argument as a series of these dialogues. It is not that. As John [Justice Stevens] details out, what is happening is the court is owning a discussion with itself by way of the middleman of the legal professional.

Altering the bench is not the only institutional reform Burger instituted as main justice. Between other improvements, he greater the allotment of clerks for each justice to 4, started issuing a frequent report on the condition of the judiciary and established the Supreme Court Historic Culture. He also set up the follow of making sure that a syllabus, or summary, is published with every single opinion.

These syllabi assistance journalists, but that group could continue to have reason to item to Burger’s reconstructed bench. To make room for the bench wings’ new intrusion into the courtroom room, the outdated push segment experienced to move. As the Wall Avenue Journal documented at the time, “The reporters shed … the greatest seats in the house, a couple of ft from the Justices and from the lectern at which attorneys deal with the court.”

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