Behind the Scenes: Providing Access to Supreme Court Oral Arguments


Today’s post was written by Dan Rooney, Director of NARA’s Special Media Records Division. 

The National Archives Catalog Newsletter recently highlighted that the Moving Image and Sound Branch has made the totality of its Supreme Court audio recordings available for research in the National Archives Catalog. The Catalog can now facilitate access to searching, listening to, and downloading digital audio files of oral arguments and opinion announcements, as recorded by the Court from 1955 to 2022. The National Archives (NARA) is pleased to make this body of records available to all researchers through its online research portals. 

Please enjoy one of the many “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”s in the catalog, 267.1005

While this is the first time that NARA has made all digital content available from the Supreme Court audio holdings in the Catalog, the genesis of NARA’s effort was Professor Jerry Goldman and the Oyez Project. Mr. Goldman is the founder of the Oyez Project, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, and formerly a Research Professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Mr. Goldman proposed strategic collaborations with NARA dating back to 1996. For many years thereafter, he worked directly with NARA staff to further NARA’s preservation and access goals for the Supreme Court audio recordings. 

NARA’s holdings of Supreme Court audio recordings date to the start of the 1955 court session. The earliest recording in the collection is from the October 10, 1955 argument in the case of Texas v. New Mexico, an interstate water dispute which persists to modern cases and arguments before the Court. In the early years of recording, the Court only occasionally (though did not systematically) recorded opinion announcements. Eventually, the Court began recording its entire day’s proceedings when in session.

In 1969, the first twelve years worth of recordings were deposited at NARA by agreement between the Chief Justice and the Archivist of the United States. Thereafter, regular transfers followed by agreement roughly every two to three years. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Court began the process of systematically transferring to NARA all recordings made for each session at its conclusion. In 1993, by agreement between the Supreme Court and NARA, all recordings in NARA custody became open and available for public access and use. 

From 1955 to 2004, the court recorded its proceedings onto 1/4” open reel analog tape. The project to digitize and create digital preservation and access files of all analog recordings took approximately fifteen years to complete. Beginning with the 2005 session, the Court implemented a digital audio recording system, and began transferring digital audio files to NARA for preservation and public access. To date, the Court annually transfers its previous term’s recordings to NARA at the start of each new term in October. The Court also immediately makes digital audio of oral arguments available to the public on its website, prior to transfer to NARA. 

NARA’s holdings of Supreme Court audio recordings consist of approximately 8,600 preservation master reels of analog tape, and approximately 980 born-digital audio files covering recordings from 2005 to 2022. Preservation and public access to these holdings have been made possible due to the collaborative efforts of Mr. Goldman and his team of researchers and technical assistants, and NARA staff from both the Moving Image and Sound Branch and the Audio-Video Preservation Lab. 

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