The Loudest Voice at the Supreme Court: The Solicitor General’s Dominance of Amicus Oral Argument

57 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2019 Last revised: 17 Aug 2020

See all articles by Darcy Covert

Darcy Covert

King County Department of Public Defense

A. J. Wang

Independent Researcher

Date Written: July 19, 2020

Abstract

The Solicitor General (“SG”) is often called the “Tenth Justice,” a title that captures his unique relationship with the Supreme Court and his independence from the Executive Branch. No phenomenon better reflects this relationship than the Court’s practice of permitting amici to participate in oral argument. Although amicus oral argument is nominally available to all litigants, the modern Court grants this privilege almost exclusively to the SG. Scholars and court watchers have long argued that this practice is justified because the SG uses it to pursue the rule of law and an objective sense of “justice.”

This Article challenges that account. The SG’s dominance of amicus oral argument is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the early 1900s, the SG requested amicus oral argument almost exclusively to defend federal statutes or federal agency action. During this time, the Court granted all his amicus oral argument requests. But, over time, SGs increasingly entered political cases with only tenuous connections to the federal government. During the 1980s, the Court became skeptical of the SG’s political independence; in response, it denied fifteen percent of his amicus oral argument motions, and individual Justices criticized him in internal memoranda. Thirty years later, the Court permits the SG to argue as an amicus in almost any case he wants even though he increasingly weighs in on politically charged cases with de minimis implications for the federal government.

This new equilibrium has profound consequences. By permitting the SG to be heard any time he asks, the Court systematically biases the perspectives that it hears. This bias undermines due process principles and the adversarial process, and it ignores the Court’s own history and rules. We offer a proposal for reform.

Keywords: Solicitor General, Supreme Court, Oral Argument

Suggested Citation

Covert, Darcy and Wang, A. J., The Loudest Voice at the Supreme Court: The Solicitor General’s Dominance of Amicus Oral Argument (July 19, 2020). Vanderbilt Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3446919 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3446919

Darcy Covert (Contact Author)

King County Department of Public Defense ( email )

A. J. Wang

Independent Researcher ( email )

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