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Unformatted text preview: American Political Science Review Vol. 100, No. 1 February 2006 The Influence of Oral Arguments on the U.S. Supreme Court TIMOTHY R. JOHNSON University of Minnesota PAUL J. WAHLBECK George Washington University JAMES F. SPRIGGS, II University of California, Davis W e posit that Supreme Court oral arguments provide justices with useful information that in- fluences their final votes on the merits. To examine the role of these proceedings, we ask the following questions: (1) what factors influence the quality of arguments presented to the Court; and, more importantly, (2) does the quality of a lawyers oral argument affect the justices final votes on the merits? We answer these questions by utilizing a unique data sourceevaluations Justice Blackmun made of the quality of oral arguments presented to the justices. Our analysis shows that Justice Blackmuns grading of attorneys is somewhat influenced by conventional indicators of the credibility of attorneys and are not simply the product of Justice Blackmuns ideological leanings. We thus suggest they can plausibly be seen as measuring the quality of oral argument. We further show that the probability of a justice voting for a litigant increases dramatically if that litigants lawyer presents better oral arguments than the competing counsel. These results therefore indicate that this element of the Courts decisional process affects final votes on the merits, and it has implications for how other elite decision makers evaluate and use information. R esearch on decision making by the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated that rules and proceduressuch as the rule of four in certiorari voting (Boucher and Segal 1995; Caldeira, Wright, and Zorn 1999), the norm of opinion assign- ment (Maltzman and Wahlbeck 2004), the norm that a majority of the justices must support an opinion for it to be considered precedent (Epstein and Knight 1998; Maltzman, Spriggs, and Wahlbeck 2000), and the order of voting at conference (Johnson, Spriggs, and Wahlbeck 2005)influence the choices justices make. The implication is that the rules and norms of the Courts decisional process provide information to help justices understand the consequences of their choices. This spate of research, however, has generally ig- nored the most visible element of the Courts de- cisional processoral arguments. Although a hand- ful of studies show that justices gather information from these proceedings (Benoit 1989; Cohen 1978; Johnson 2001, 2004; Wasby, DAmato, and Metrailer 1976), comparatively little is known about how oral arguments affect their choices. This lack of knowl- edge has led to significant differences of opinion over the extent to which oral arguments influence justices Timothy R. Johnson is Assistant Professor, Department of Politi- cal Science, University of Minnesota, 1414 Social Sciences Build- ing, 267 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (tjohnson@ polisci.umn.edu)....
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