Supreme Court Rules, Practices, and Traditions


What is oral argument?

Oral argument is the process by which attorneys come before the U.S. Supreme Court and present their case. The attorneys face questioning about the case from the individual justices. Rule 28 provides that generally each side is given thirty minutes for argument. The petitioner presents first and then the respondent follows. The petitioner can reserve some time for rebuttal after the respondent’s argument. Oral argument is important because it offers the advocates the only time with which to interact with the justices and persuade them to their points of view.

The justices vary in how much they question the attorney-advocates. Justice Antonin Scalia is known for being quite vocal at oral argument, firing many questions at the attorneys. Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, is normally quite reticent at oral argument. In most cases, he does not ask a single question.

An artist’s sketch shows attorney John Gibbons presenting an oral argument in front of the Supreme Court justices in April 2004. Dana Verkouteren/AP Images.

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