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Supreme Court Opinion Announcements: An Underutilized Resource

July 19, 2011

In a recent interview with AARP, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens discussed career longevity and his decision to retire from the Court last year. During one segment of the interview, the audio recording of Justice Stevens reading from his dissent in Citizens United v. FEC was played, and Stevens explained that the bit of difficulty he had in reading the announcement aloud triggered his first serious thoughts of retirement. However, for us, the segment also served as a reminder of the underappreciated value of Supreme Court opinion announcements and the audio recordings of those announcements, which the Oyez Project provides on-line for many cases.

The transcripts and recordings of opinion announcements are a valuable and underused resource for information and insight on the Court. In addition to granting listeners the ability to hear the Justices themselves describe the opinions they authored -- dissents as well as majority opinions -- the announcements often provide useful summaries of lengthy decisions. While Justice Stevens may have stumbled during the Citizens United reading, he still managed to succinctly summarize his 90-page (over 30,000-word) written dissent in a 20-minute (2,500-word) speech.  Furthermore, the announcements sometimes feature rhetorical flourishes that amplify the impact of the opinion and help convey the Justices’ true feelings about a case. Justice Stevens’ dissent in Citizens United includes these powerful sentences:

If taken seriously, our colleagues’ assumption that the identity of a speaker has no relevance to the Government’s ability to regulate political speech would lead to some remarkable conclusions. Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by “Tokyo Rose” during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.

Powerful, but made even stronger in Justice Stevens’ oral announcement by the replacement of “Allied commanders” with the more specific evocation of General Douglas MacArthur: “The Court's new rule…would have accorded the propaganda broadcast to our troops by Tokyo Rose during World War II the same threshold protection as a speech by General MacArthur.” Hearing the last World War II veteran to serve on the Court charge the majority with placing Tokyo Rose on equal footing with General MacArthur conjures up a striking image.

Justice Breyer’s dissent in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 provides another example of how important and newsworthy opinion announcements can be. While Breyer’s 77-page dissent offers a thorough explanation of his views on the case, his emotionally charged delivery of the opinion leaves a lasting impact on listeners. Additionally, in one short sentence not included in the opinion itself, Justice Breyer powerfully summed up the changes that had occurred on the Court after Justice Samuel Alito succeeded Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:  “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much.”

Opinion announcements are not part of the Court’s official opinions nor in any way binding on lower courts, so they tend to get very little attention. But for anyone wanting to dig deeper into what precisely goes on behind the majestic doors at 1 First Street, transcripts and audio recordings of opinion announcements, made public by the Oyez Project, are an invaluable resource.