The New Oral Argument: Justices as Advocates

86 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2018 Last revised: 25 Jun 2018

Date Written: May 30, 2018


This Article conducts a comprehensive empirical inquiry of 55 years of Supreme Court oral argument, showing that judicial activity has increased dramatically, in terms of words used, duration of speech, interruptions made, and comments proffered. The Court is asking no more questions of advocates; instead, the justices are providing conclusions and rebutting their colleagues. In addition, the justices direct more of their comments and questions to the side with whom they ultimately disagree. Furthermore, “losing” justices, be it ideological camps that are outnumbered on the Court or dissenters in specific cases, use oral arguments to push back against the dominant group, reasserting an opposing narrative through oral argument. These forms of judicial behavior constitute advocacy, rather than judging. These are not trends that have gradually emerged over time: rather, we predict and establish that oral arguments changed dramatically in 1995, in response to the rapidly growing political polarization in Congress and the public at large. Partisan division, anger at political opponents, and disappearing middle ground all affect not only political players, but shape how Supreme Court justices behave at oral argument, the one public part of the Court’s decision-making process.

Keywords: Supreme Court, Oral argument, decision-making, ideology, advocacy, polarization, empirical legal studies

JEL Classification: K00 K10

Suggested Citation

Jacobi, Tonja and Sag, Matthew, The New Oral Argument: Justices as Advocates (May 30, 2018). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 94, 2019, Available at SSRN:

Tonja Jacobi

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Matthew Sag (Contact Author)

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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