WASHINGTON (AP) – Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell’s Tidewater Virginia drawl could make the word “court” sound as if it had two syllables. And Justice Clarence Thomas, though he doesn’t talk much, speaks in a deep baritone.
The voices of those justices and 30 others, as well as thousands of lawyers who have argued before the court, are now part of a massive Internet archive assembled by the Chicago-based Oyez Project. The group has spent more than a decade putting together recordings going back to 1955, when an audio recorder was first installed at the court.
Now, the group is finishing work that makes the archive even more accessible, linking the audio to simultaneously scrolling transcripts that also identify the justices and arguing lawyers as they speak. In all, almost 14,000 hours of audio are available for free. It would take more than a year and a half of continuous listening to hear everything.
“The only way to be authoritative is to say we have it all,” said Jerry Goldman, the director of the project, which is based at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Goldman said the audio contains gems ranging from the sound of one justice forming a spit wad during the days when chewing tobacco in court was still acceptable to the time an arguing lawyer used the F-bomb, a word key to a 1971 case involving freedom of speech.
By this fall visitors to the project’s website will be able to search all the argument transcripts, so someone could, Goldman says, search for and then listen to every time the phrase “strict scrutiny” has been used or every time someone said “broccoli” during last year’s health care law debate.
The court’s aural history has never been so accessible. Until fairly recently, the Supreme Court waited months before releasing the audio of proceedings. Now, oral argument recordings are released at the end of every week, but the court’s own website only provides audio from 2010 forward.
The Oyez Project’s website and an accompanying app are vastly more comprehensive. When Goldman began his work in the mid-1990s, he offered free streaming audio of about 100 hours of the court’s most important cases.
In 2003, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Goldman was able to expand his offerings by digitizing reel-to-reel tape of the court’s proceedings that had been archived in a warehouse in College Park, Md. Additional contributions from law firms and grants, including one from Google, helped him complete the project.
“This is still a work in progress, but I think it’s fair to say it’s essentially done,” said Goldman, who drives a car with the license plate “Oyez,” the name of his project but also the word the Supreme Court’s marshal says three times at the beginning of any court session. Goldman’s cellphone also rings with the marshal’s cry, which is 11th-century French for “hear ye,” and it’s another piece of audio that’s available on the project’s website.
Last year, the site got more than 3 million unique visitors; lawyers and law students are common users.
Goldman sometimes also gets emails from people who have used the site to hear the voice of a relative who argued before the court. Martha Nichols sent one of those emails in 2010 when she found the audio of a 1984 case argued by her father, one of the more than 8,600 lawyers whose arguments are captured in the archive. Nichols’ father, H. Louis Nichols, had just died, and Nichols said she was beginning to forget what he sounded like.
“Oh, my gosh, it brought me to tears the first time I heard it,” she said.
Jeff Parsons, the Oyez Project’s Seattle-based senior technical consultant who has listened to hundreds of hours of audio, says every case has potential.
Said Parsons: “Every case in the court represents some interesting question or dilemma that was interesting to someone.”
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