Maybe I’m just a legal nerd, but I enjoy listening on occasion to oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
The habit began with listening to Supreme Court cases in summary form on the Legal Docket segment every Monday on the podcast The World and Everything in It. (If you listen every Monday, you’ll get Mary Reichard’s coverage of every case heard by the Court each year. Start here!) Whenever a case piques my interest, I check out summaries from different perspectives on the SCOTUS blog, sometimes listen to commentary on the Advisory Opinions podcast, and every now and then download the oral arguments so I can listen in.
You might think only the cases that deal with abortion or religious liberty would interest me, but I find that’s not the case. I even enjoy the more obscure debates. Why the appeal?
Even though I’m not a law student, nor do I have any legal experience, I’m intrigued by the discussion. The Supreme Court is one of the last places in society where you can find strong, civil debate on thorny questions. Where else do you find powerful points and counterpoints presented in civility by people at the top of their game? Where else do you hear arguments from people who know their cases inside and out and seek to persuade the justices so their position might prevail?
No case arrives at the Court unless there’s a split in the circuit courts. Only the most perplexing issues get debated, often with far-reaching implications for society. Listening to the arguments can help you develop a deeper understanding of the legal principles at play and the reasoning behind each side’s position.
Tough Calls and the Art of Persuasion
Many of the high-profile cases fall along philosophical lines (with the conservative-leaning justices on one side and the liberal-leaning justices on the other), but plenty of cases split in interesting ways. Not all outcomes follow the same pattern, especially when the issues involved aren’t at the center of culture-war politics.
Not long ago, I listened to the arguments over “fair use” laws, with Andy Warhol and Prince at the center of controversy. Both sides made a compelling case about what constitutes fair use, how to protect commentary on artistic works, and how we should define the transformation of art. The points and counterpoints were so strong I couldn’t help but be glad I’m not having to make the call!
I enjoy the back-and-forth of oral arguments because of the intellectual stimulation of hearing people make strong cases for their point of view, yet always doing so civilly and respectfully. It’s a masterclass in the art of persuasion. Listen long enough and you’ll start to notice the various strategies lawyers use to influence the Court: appealing to precedent, highlighting the broader implications of a ruling, and presenting compelling facts and evidence.
A World of Bad Debate
Unfortunately, it seems there are fewer and fewer places where one gets this kind of robust and respectful debate.
Jonathan Haidt has shown we rarely make judgments based solely on reason; usually, we make snap judgments and then look for rational justification for why we feel the way we feel.
Alasdair MacIntyre has described our society as enthralled by emotivism, defined as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” No wonder it’s so rare to find good argumentation on Twitter or civil back-and-forth on Facebook—these are forums that confuse emoting with arguing and that devolve into endless quarrels.
Listening to Supreme Court oral arguments, especially cases I’ve only recently become aware of (or ones where I don’t have strong feelings about the outcome), can be a beneficial exercise because I feel the force of both a point and counterpoint. Listening to the justices and the questions they ask, the way they push and probe and press on the arguments, testing the weak points and providing pushback—it’s a terrific way of sharpening your mind, testing your assumptions and biases, and learning strong and weak ways of reasoning.
Points and Counterpoints
I love a good debate. It’s why I enjoy the point-counterpoint books put out by evangelical publishers. A recent example is Zondervan’s Christ in the Old Testament, which includes five views of how we should read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture in light of Christ. Reading that volume didn’t resolve all my questions and concerns about various interpretive approaches, but it did help me see some of the pitfalls and dangers in the debate. Even if my position lines up closest to just one of the contributors, my respect for the other positions went up because I can see what they’re trying to safeguard or protect, even if I may not think their approach is best.
We need more forums where robust debate can take place. That’s why I recommend occasionally listening to oral arguments—not because you need a crash course in legal disputes or a civics lesson in how our government works (although these are benefits), but because it’s a place where you encounter experts in the field making the strongest case they can and then responding as well as possible to the counterpoints that might arise. Look up some of the key legal terms you hear. Enjoy the satisfaction of legal jousting. Sharpen your mind and widen your perspective. It’s a mental workout you won’t regret.
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