Screenshot of the audio transcript of oral arguments in Hollingsworth v PerryThe last couple weeks have been real big on Supreme Court news. The court heard two cases on same sex marriage – Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor. Conveniently, we were also embarking on our unit on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in my AP Government and Politics class.

In the first couple days, we discussed some key elements of how the Supreme Court hears cases. We eventually talked about the role of oral arguments and rendering decisions. I thought, given the interesting cases before the court this week, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could actually hear some of those oral arguments?

Well, you can. That’s one of the wonderful parts of the Oyez project (pronounced “oh yey”).

The Oyez project is currently run by the Illionois Institute of Technology (IIT) and its Chicago-Kent College of Law. The purpose of the project: “to make the work of the Supreme Court of the United States accessible to everyone through text, images, audio, and video.”

And with that, they’ve done a fine job.

There’s a lot of stuff contained on the Oyez project website, but one of the coolest features to me is the transcript-synced audio clips. Going back to the 1970’s, the project hosts the audio recording of oral arguments in a case, which typically last about an hour. This audio is then synced to a written transcript, and you can watch the text flow in the media player as you hear it.

Check out the example below, from last week’s case Hollingsworth v. Perry.

There are a couple things I love here.

First, the audio synced to the transcript is awesome. I find that listening to long, complex audio can be confusing for students. Heck, it can be confusing for me. Supreme Court arguments are full of legal mumbo jumbo and case law citations that could easily confuse someone not trained in the jargon, and being able to read and listen at the same time helps improve comprehension.

Second, it’s just so cool to actually hear the judges and the lawyers in these cases. In history classes we often teach about court cases as decisions that are handed down, and the justices don’t exactly come across as people. Nor do the lawyers. All that’s left is the institution and the law. It’s easy to forget the personalities that drive those decisions, which become readily apparent when you actually hear the arguments.

We listened to a short segment of these arguments, about fifteen minutes, in class. I wanted to demonstrate what oral arguments were actually like and see the way that the justices and the counsel interacted. That’s definitely a valuable goal and resource for a government and politics class.

I could also see this being a great resource to go along with a independent research project, either in a U.S. history class or a government and politics class. For example, let’s say your students are working on a webquest or other kind of independent research project about the Pentagon Papers case. You can include the audio as one of the resources the student might want to consult. Similarly, any other court case in the last forty years or so.

Among other things, there’s also a virtual tour of the Supreme Court available on the website. You can “walk” through the entire court, including the courtroom, the library, the justices’ chambers, the conference room. There are hi res photos of many points of interest and detail within the court room. While this isn’t quite as impressive as actually being there, it is cool nonetheless. I just took the tour for a while, as I’ve never had the chance to visit the court, and found it interesting.

So, head on over to the Oyez project if you’re looking for some interesting multimedia snippets to use for teaching about the court or the legal aspects of modern U.S. history.