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Recording arguments at the Court, Part II

Last month I interviewed Jerry Goldman, Professor of Political Science. Goldman is the creator and director of the Oyez Project, a publicly-accessible archive of all Supreme Court oral audio recorded since 1955 and a vast collection of Court-related images and other media. His other projects include the Spoken Word Project, a database of media and audio sources, and IDEAlog, a program that analyzes political values.  See Part I here.

6.  Has the Court changed its technology as you have suggested solutions or pointed out potential improvements?

They have recently tried new strategies, and for a few years, experimented with reel-to-reel recordings and CD recordings.  The CDs would be much better quality, but the Court makes it almost impossible to access them.  The Court also considered using a proprietary system from Australia, but later reconsidered, and finally moved a to a full digital recording environment.  Even still, the Court chose a low bit rate and an inappropriate recording standard, which means we lose data in the recording, and overall the quality is well below where it should be.

7.  Have you suggested other changes in the Court’s recording technology?

Back in 2000, when the Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board case was argued, every media group was looking for information, and each of them was hoping secure real-time video broadcasting from the courtroom.  I wrote Chief Justice Rehnquist about this, and to inform him that a same-day release of the oral argument was possible.  The Chief Justice responded (and this was the only response I ever got from him), and said they would do it.  This was the first time the Court ever did a same-day release of an oral argument, and they now do it for a limited number of cases each term.  See the letter from the Chief Justice here:

Letter from William H. Rehnquist

This incident also helped us convince the Court of problems caused by the tape recording equipment.  At the end of the argument, when they uploaded the recording to a satellite feed, I made a copy of it.  A few days later, I listened to the recording when the reel-to-reel copy was released.  They were different: the reel-to-reel feed was an octave lower and poor quality.  This was our proof that the tape deck was not functioning properly, so I wrote the Chief Justice again.  This time, I got a call from the Court, as they would never want to put something like this in writing, to let me know that they were looking into it. Some adjustments were made to the old recording decks but the process continued to be sub-par.

8.  Does have plans to introduce any new features in the near future?

We have enhanced our Oyez tour to allow you to expand the pictures and view of the Court to fill the whole screen on your computer monitor.  I often do so on my thirty-inch monitor, and it’s a great view, as we’ve taken the images and repurposed them in a Flash environment.

Our “enhanced player,” will soon allow authorized listeners to make corrections to the transcript.  So if you think our speaker-identification model has incorrectly identified a Justice, you could simply correct the transcript and speaker identification.  Also, you’ll be able to extract clips, drag them out, save them, and repurpose them.  After you tag and annotate it, you’ll be able to share the annotations with others.  So allowing crowd-sourcing and permitting specified users to improve our source-materials is our next goal, but this is difficult as we only have the equivalent of 1.5 full-time employees.  We have implemented an advanced search feature that allows you to, for example, search for and listen to every time that Scalia said the words “Strict Scrutiny” in a case.

Additionally, we are geo-tagging each case so that you can see where Supreme Court cases started, and I don’t just mean the first courtroom where a case was heard.  For example, in the case of Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, a 1958 civil rights case, you can use Google Maps street view to see the Eagle Coffee Shop that denied William Burton service.  As augmented reality becomes a feature of our world, you will be able to see where cases started, and perhaps even receive notification if you are near where a case began.  We also provide pictures and locations for each Justice’s gravesite.  And at some-point, we may explore speech engineering to identify the emotional state of a speaker by modeling whether the speaker is angry, bored, excited.

9.  Do you have plans to add any additional material to the site?

We plan to add the Harry Blackmun oral history to the site, and I recently obtained the audio for two parts of a three-part lecture series given by Judge Learned Hand.  The lectures are entitled The Bill of Rights, and were delivered by Judge Hand at Harvard Law School in 1958.  Most people have never heard audio of his voice, and when I have time I will post it to the site, under the category of  “coulda, shoulda, woulda” been a Supreme Court Justice.  We also have older transcripts, from cases argued in the 1930s, around the time when the Court heard a number of New Deal cases, that we hope to post.

10.  Are there any arguments that you recommend our readers listen to, and do you have a favorite?

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow is my favorite argument.  Michael Newdow went against what everyone says you should do, and represented himself, and gave one of the best oral arguments I have ever heard.  Then he lost on a jurisdictional question.

On the other hand, Waters v. Churchill may be the worst argument I have heard, as the advocate was unprepared and could not get off the facts of the case and onto the topic.  At one point, a Justice even interrupted to say, “Well, but we… we granted certiorari on a question presented, and you can assume that we want to… we want to hear argument on that question.”

11.  If Chief Justice Roberts asked you to organize a new recording system at the Court, how would you set it up and why?

I think it’s really simple.  You record to a high-sample, non-proprietary, lossless data format, and you can preserve the entire argument.  The recordings should be open-source, and should be recorded in either Waveform Audio File Format, or Audio Interchange File Format.  We shouldn’t lose any information because of the recording format.  Even now, although the Court uses MP3 digital recordings, it is still using the wrong standard.  These adjustments would require almost no changes to the Court’s actual recording systems, except making a few switches on the device they are using.  If it did require funding, it would cost peanuts, literally about $100.  The price is trivial and the investment would be well-worth it.

As for scheduling, I have argued for, and continue to favor, the same-day release of audio.  Once you release the transcript, I do not understand the need to delay the release of audio transcript until the end of the term.  I have also argued that the Court should release the recordings in June.  The only explanation is that it is a Court tradition, just like quill pens.  By the time Marbury v. Madison was argued in 1803, anyone writing could use steel tipped pens, dipped in ink, instead of writing with a quill.  But they still gave, and continue to give, quill pens to attorneys, as the Court is just so steeped in tradition, and one of their traditions is not releasing arguments.

It is amongst the most frustrating of experiences to try and communicate or work with the Court about possible changes, most of which would require little effort and minimal costs.  These small changes would enhance our records and understanding of the Court, and would also allow the Court to fulfill its obligation to record their arguments for posterity.