The Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent 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 since the installation of a recording system in October 1955. The Project also provides authoritative information on all justices and offers a virtual reality Tour of portions of the Supreme Court building, including the chambers of some of the justices.
The Project happily accepts comments, concerns, and inquiries regarding the site's content. If you have any such feedback, please submit it via our Site Feedback page.
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. Many Northwestern University undergraduates worked on various versions before the development of a web-based application. The development of a web-based version of the project stems from the foresight of Richard Barone and Joe Germuska of Northwestern's then nascent Learning Technologies Group. Though the Oyez Project is now more than 20 years old, it remains true to its initial objective: to make the work of the Supreme Court of the United States accessible to everyone through text, images, audio, and video.
With a small hardware support grant from the National Science Foundation (SBR-9602170), followed by a major "Teaching with Technology" from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project morphed into "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez" on the Web. We added hundreds of hours of oral arguments in key constitutional cases and developed the QTVR tour of the Supreme Court building. Additional support from the National Science Foundation, under its Digital Libraries 2 Initiative to support a "National Gallery of the Spoken Word" (IIS-9817485), enabled enhancement of the audio collection effort. Additional support came from Northwestern University Libraries, the Weinberg College of Art and Sciences, the M. R. Bauer Foundation, FindLaw, and Justia.
In 2003, the National Science Foundation provided a major grant (IIS-0325282) to support interdisciplinary interests in Supreme Court. In 2011, thanks to a grant from Google, we are adding to the archive until it is complete. This means access to all audio recorded in the Court from October 1955 to the most recent audio release.
In 2011, the Oyez Project moved to the Chicago-Kent College of Law, which is part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Chicago-Kent has made an on-going commitment to maintain and enhance our work. Its generosity supported the most recent redesign, web site enhancements, and development of OyezToday (see below).
In addition, Oyez receives annual support from its generous benefactors.
The Oyez Project now offers access to more than 7,000 hours of Supreme Court audio. The aim of this latest effort is to create a public, searchable archive of all public sessions recorded in the Court since 1955. With this version of Oyez, our audio collection covers all audio from the 1968 Term through the current 2010 Term. Before 1968, the audio collection is selective.
The Court today titrates the release of oral argument audio on Fridays of every weekly argument session. The Court releases audio of opinion announcements and other ephemera to the National Archives at the start of a new Term on the first Monday in October. We transcribe the audio and release it to the public shortly thereafter.
Recordings of the Court
The Supreme Court installed an audio recording system in 1955 and began recording its proceedings on the first Monday in October, the start of its annual Term. It has been recording almost all proceedings ever since. The recordings were principally for use by the justices and their clerks. The Court agreed to archive the recordings - which were made on reel-to-reel tapes - 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.
Audio at the National Archives
Only a portion of all the Supreme Court audio is accessible to the public at the National Archives Motion Picture and Sound Branch in College Park, Maryland. Some of the audio from the 1970's and the 1990's is available for public access; the vast majority resides on master reels that are not accessible to the public when visiting the Archives. The public tapes are known as shelf or reference copies, usually third generation copies from the master reels. Each reel or cassette contains a single argument. Occasionally, a shelf copy may also contain the pro forma admissions to the bar of the Supreme Court along with an argument. While the Court recorded all public proceedings, it did not always transmit the proceedings in their entirety to the Archives. So for the most part, the announcements of opinions, which are usually read in open court, were not transmitted routinely to the Archives.
The Oyez Project has arranged with the Archives to dub the original reel-to-reel tapes to a standard digital archiving format (.wav, 96k/24bit). The reels are exceptionally long and contain multiple events and partial events. The tapes do not exist as unique tracks on a CD. They must be engineered to meet acceptable standards for use. This means that the digital dubs must be disassembled into constituent parts. Arguments that exist across two or more tapes must be assembled into a single unit.
The master tapes exhibit a number of anomalies. The Court's tape machines were not maintained to their original specifications, especially through the 1990's. Thus, when dubbed the resulting audio files were frequently recorded at a slightly faster (or slower) speed so that when played back on a correctly specified device, the audio would sound lower (or higher) in pitch by about 6 to 9 percent. To bring the audio up to acceptable quality, i.e., to create audio that sounded like the people speaking, required reengineering the files to align with what we knew from the Court's transcripts to be the correct length of the file from the beginning ("Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court") to the conclusion ("The case is submitted.") This was a major undertaking and presents the irony that the official versions stored at the Archives may sound artificial whereas the unofficial versions of the audio on The Oyez Project are faithful to the speakers' voices. Pat Ward of neubottle.com has been responsible for this engineering effort.
Other anomalies have degraded the Court's audio. In the early 1990's, a court employee responsible for the taping system ran out of tape during a session. Duly admonished, he observed that the tape decks were set to record at 7.5 inches per second. That is, the tape machines would allow a measured amount of tape across the recording transom at a fixed rate of 7.5 ips. A switch on the tape deck allowed the operator to change the setting from 7.5 ips to 3.75 ips. This had the benefit of doubling the amount of audio that could be recorded on a single reel, thereby lowering substantially the probability of mis-recording another session. But there was a downside to this change: The tape deck would record half as much information as the higher setting. Thus, there was a noticeable decline in the quality of the Court's audio resulting from this misbegotten change. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to correct the error. We pointed out the problem when we deduced it and then convinced the Archives and the Court that something was amiss with the tape recording system. It was corrected in the 2002 Term.
During the 1980's, a change in the formula for the manufacture of reel-to-reel tape led to a rapid degradation of archived tapes. Though designed to last at least 80 years, these reformulated tapes were becoming unusable after just a few years of use and storage. The problem, known as "sticky shed syndrome" exhibits the following behavior: The tape reel starts to stick together causing the reel to shed or rip when mounted and deployed. The solution called for a process of baking the tape in a slow oven for several hours then mounting the tape and dubbing it to another reel or to a digital storage device. The tape manufacturers recognized the problem and altered the formulation of tape stock to avoid the sticky shed problem. A portion of the Court's tapes exhibit sticky shed syndrome and must be treated to extract as much data as possible, though not always successfully. This explains why some tapes from the 1980's and into the 1990's may exhibit poor - and less than acceptable - quality. However, there is nothing that can be done now to correct the problem.
Tape recordings from the 2003 Term also exhibited sticky shed syndrome. Though improper tape stock had not been manufactured for years, the Court unknowingly relied on old tape stock for several of the tapes recorded in this period. Again, this problem did not surface until the damage had been done. This explains why some relatively recent Court audio remains less than satisfactory.
Though the Court recorded all public sessions, it did not always deliver all recorded sessions to the Archives. For a period in the 1980's, Court officials archived recordings from days of oral argument, withholding opinion announcements from its archival responsibility. The National Archives did not routinely accession opinion announcements, however. Thus, with access to the original master tapes submitted to the Archives, it is now possible to make public the announcement of opinions whenever possible. We do so whenever possible at The Oyez Project.
The Supreme Court ended its use of the reel-to-reel taping system in October 2005, switching to a digital recording environment with audio recorded to the mp3 format on solid-state media. The selection of mp3 as a recording standard (as opposed to a delivery standard) is unfortunate. Mp3 is a "lossy" format; some data will be lost when converting sounds to mp3. As technology improves our ability to study and extract meaning from sounds, the reliance on the mp3 files will impede such investigation. The Court has also selected a low standard for its mp3 recordings, further impeding the quality of the resulting audio files. Given the low cost of recording media, the selection is difficult to fathom. We informed the Chief Justice of the problems associated with mp3 recordings but have never received a reply.
Visual Representation of Court Opinions
We report voting details in every case back to 1953, thanks to data compiled by Harold Spaeth, the creator of several NSF-funded databases currently hosted Center for Empirical Research in the Law (CERL) at Washington University School of Law. We display votes using headshots of the justices. Active images signal voting with the majority, opaque images signal voting with the minority, and missing images signal no participation. The author of a majority opinion will be framed in purple, and the author of a judgment of the Court will be framed in green. More details about a justice's vote can be displayed by moving the mouse over his or her picture. For example, this is how the votes appear in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld:
You can sort the votes by voting coalitions, by seniority, or by ideology. Seniority arrays the justices left to right, with the Chief Justice in the left-hand position followed in order of service by the other justices. Ideology arrays the justices left to right from most liberal to most conservative. The ideological array is based on the Martin-Quinn ideal point estimation data computed each Term back to 1937. (Andrew D. Martin and Kevin M. Quinn. 2002. "Dynamic Ideal Point Estimation via Markov Chain Monte Carlo for the U.S. Supreme Court, 1953-1999." Political Analysis. 10: 134-153.)
The Oyez Player
The audio archive contains 110+ million words in 9000+ hours of audio synchronized to the sentence level. In time, every speaker will be identified. Elements of this rich database may be accessed through a custom player we created to make use of the audio as easy as possible. With the latest release of the Oyez Project (September 2011), users may use the player to clip and share portions of SCOTUS audio. This might be small as a single sentence or an entire turn spoken by a justice or advocate. These clips can be deployed in other formats such as research projects or presentations, or hip-hop, or art installations. It is now possible to share audio on Facebook or Twitter. And users can easily embed the player into other web pages with a simple copy-and-paste command.
The Oyez Apps
We have created two separate apps for smart devices (iPhone, iPad, Android phones) that extends the use of Oyez content. PocketJustice focuses on the Court's constitutional jurisprudence, giving users case abstracts, opinions, and audio from their devices. OyezToday concentrates on the Court's current activities with swift delivery of abstracts, opinions, and audio. Both apps enable easy clip creation. Just flip, tap, listen, clip and share. It's that simple. And both apps come in free versions.
"The Law-Baseball Quiz" debuted in The New York Times on April 4, 1979. Created by law professor Robert M. Cover, it compared baseball players and Supreme Court Justices. The quiz has delighted and stumped enthusiasts on many occasions since it first appeared.
Oyez Baseball is an enlarged version of Professor Cover's initial vision. We have simply burnished the metaphor that Professor Cover summoned to describe baseball personalities and justices. Much has changed from the simple newspaper version Cover penned, as quiz enthusiasts will discover.
Creator and Director: Prof. Jerry Goldman, Research Professor of Law, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
Senior Technical Consultant: Jeff Parsons
Technical Lead: Matthew Gruhn
Senior Engineering Consultant and Mobile Device Specialist (iOS/Android): Francesco Stagno d'Alcontres
Audio Engineering: Neubottle.com
Speaker Identification Consultant: Prof. Jiahong Yuan, University of Pennsylvania, Department of Linguistics
Transcription Services: Tech-Synergy
Senior Researchers: Melanie Kibbler, Christina Walker
Case Abstracts Lead: Melanie Kibbler
Case Abstracts: Dana Leib, Timothy Schaefer, Filip Zucek
Building Photography and QTVR: Dennis Glenn
Site Redesign and Metadata Consultant: Andrew Gruen
Former Assistants: Maryam Adamu, Matthew Anderson, Richard Caldarone, Jeff Cao, Jon Clow, Stephanie Hale, Eric Hanson, Trey Herr, Kristina Infante, Chris Karr, Jen Koons, Susan MacDougall, Dan Mosher, Molly Newland, Owen Piette, Andy Proksel, Colin Proksel, Wayne Rapp, Kristin Sippl, Ben Snyder, Jessica Wash, Nathaniel Zebrowski, The Iona Group, Nonstop Workshop
Pioneers: Richard Barone, Jim McCoy, David Andrew, Lou Skriba, Fei I. Yeh, and Tony Becker
Early Hitchhikers: Russell Keller, Paul Manna, Tracy Davis, Suzanne Unger, Joe Maher, Sinan Aral, Da-Wei Hu
Photo credits: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Major support: National Science Foundation; Google Research; Sidley Austin, LLP; Jones Day, LLP; Justia
Additional support: Jenner & Block, LLP; Morrison & Foerster, LLP; Arnold & Porter, LLP; Consolidated Chemical Company (Chicago); Kenneth and Elena Marks Foundation.