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Science & Technology

How To Listen To The Recordings Of The Supreme Court Hearings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Despite the great uncertainties of this moment, in some places, business continues with certain adjustments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oyez. Oyez. Oyez.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

History was made this week as the U.S. Supreme Court held three days of oral arguments over teleconference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We will hear argument first this morning in case number 19-431.

SHAPIRO: The high court has been recording oral arguments since 1955. This week was the first time the public could listen live from outside the court.

CHANG: Among those tuning in was Jerry Goldman, who spent decades making Supreme Court audio accessible to the public. He's founder of the Oyez Project, a free online audio archive of more than 10,000 hours of arguments. It's great listening, he says.

JERRY GOLDMAN: First, there's the character of a person's voice and the emotion that that voice carries.

SHAPIRO: Goldman compares the experience to opera. Wouldn't you rather listen to the performance rather than just read the libretto? Now, he has noticed some big differences in this week's oral arguments over teleconference. For one thing, it's more scripted.

GOLDMAN: Everybody has a role to play. The chief justice goes down the line in order of seniority. Each justice gets a chance to ask a question. I don't think any of the justices have passed.

CHANG: Even Justice Clarence Thomas has joined, which is unusual. Also, in a courtroom, in person, the arguments are more freeform, more combative. There are lots of interruptions.

GOLDMAN: You might compare the format in the courtroom to a jazz ensemble, where improvisation is the key. In the telephone oral argument, the experience is more like a classical ensemble, where the notes are all laid out and everybody has his or her part. And there are soloists, and they each play according to the music.

SHAPIRO: One big upside to the teleconference format - surprisingly, the audio quality. You can actually hear each voice clearly. Goldman says that isn't always the case, even when you're there in person.

GOLDMAN: The courtroom itself is a very hard environment. There's all this stone and hard surfaces. And there's an enormous amount of difficulty if you're in the courtroom itself to hear that argument.

CHANG: Now, this week's arguments by teleconference have whet your appetite. Jerry Goldman says head on over to Oyez's digital archive, where you can find gems; lots of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Our point, Your Honor, is that the plaintiffs say that if he starts dancing when he gets up on that stage or up on that bar, then he's privileged under the First Amendment to appear naked notwithstanding Indiana's public indecency statute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I suppose reasonable people could look at the pledge as not constituting a prayer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, President Bush said it does count.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Well, sir, we certainly don't take him as the final authority.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: The Supreme Court has three remaining argument days this term. They'll be streamed live next week at our website NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.