New Court Dynamics With A New Term of Oral Arguments

After the first week of oral arguments for the 2016 Supreme Court Term, two of the main stories from the Court deal with Justice Breyer’s hypothetical question involving the robbery of Kim Kardashian, and the slight upturn in the number of female attorneys participating in oral arguments at the beginning of this Term as compared to years past.   Below I take a quick look at each of the five oral arguments held by the Court this week and present some basic data regarding the each of them.

In the aggregate though we may have a shift in the most dominant Justices at oral argument.  While in years past, Justice Breyer spoke considerably more than other Justices at oral argument, this first week of oral arguments in a new Term without a ninth Justice paints a potentially changing picture.  When looked at for overall words spoken, Justice Kagan is clearly the leading contributor of the Justices.


Justice Breyer did not talk during the Bravo-Fernandez arguments which put him at a disadvantage for overall speech. Justice Thomas did not speak at all.  Based on the word counts, Justice Sotomayor who began to take a lead in oral argument after Justice Scalia passed away, comes close in word count total to Justice Breyer and comes in fourth overall. For their overall word counts in the first five arguments Justice Kagan has 4,216 words, Breyer 3,345 words, Roberts 3213 words, Sotomayor 3,172 words, Ginsburg 1,565 words, Kennedy 1,414 words, and Alito 1,220 words.  Here is how this breaks down by case.

Bravo-Fernandez (transcript link)

 The following figure and others like it show the sequence of speaking during oral arguments as well as the length of each talking turn.


As I mentioned, Justice Breyer did not participate in these oral arguments.  Justice Kagan spoke the most of the Justices in these oral arguments by a large margin.  While Justice Kagan used 953 words in 19 turns talking, the next most talkative Justice, Justice Ginsburg used 502 words over the course of 13 turns talking.  Overall petitioner’s attorney, Lisa Blatt spoke the most with 46 talking turns, 234 sentences, and 3,516 total words.

Justice Kagan spoke the most of the Justices during petitioner’s argument with 534 words and also spoke the most during respondent’s argument with 419 words.  Justices Ginsburg and Kennedy were relatively silent during respondent’s turn in this case.

Shaw (transcript link)

In Shaw United States’ (the respondent) attorney Anthony Yang spoke the most with 183 sentences in 48 turns talking leading to 2,854 total words.  Justice Breyer spoke the most overall for the Justices with 1,131 words and spoke the most during the petitioner’s arguments with 893 words.  Justice Kagan spoke the most during the United States’ argument with 637 words in 23 turns talking.

Salman (transcript link)


Justice Breyer spoke considerably more than any other Justice during the Salman arguments with 983 words.  Next most was Justice Kagan with 740 words.  Of the attorneys and overall, United States’ attorney Michael Dreeben spoke the most with 167 sentences over 58 talking turns leading to 3,031 total words.  During petitioner’s argument Justice Kagan spoke the most with 583 words. Justice Breyer spoke the most during respondent’s arguments with 509 words.

Buck (transcript link)


In Buck , attorney Christina Swarns (who has received coverage for her unique demographic characteristics for a Supreme Court litigator) spoke the most with 3,071 words in 142 sentences over 45 total talking turns.  Respondent’s attorney Scott Keller spoke less than half as much with 1,409 words.  Of the Justices, Chief Justice Roberts spoke the most overall with 1,171 words which was a large margin above Justice Kagan with the next most at 809 words.

In petitioner’s argument, Chief Justice Roberts spoke the most with 615 words followed by Justice Sotomayor with 403 words.  In respondent’s argument Justice Kagan spoke most of the Justices with 617 words followed by Chief Justice Roberts with 556 words.

Manuel v. City of Joliet (transcript link)


In the final argument of the week, Manuel v. City of Joliet, three attorneys participated in oral arguments including an amicus representative from the United States.  Attorney for the respondent, Michael Scodro spoke most overall with 2,997 words. Justice Breyer spoke most out of the Justices with 815 words.

During petitioner’s argument Justices Sotomayor spoke the most (of the Justices) with 324 words over 12 turns.  During the respondent’s argument Justices Kagan and Breyer spoke the most with 685 and 658 words respectively.  Finally, during the United States’ arguments the Justices cumulatively and individually did not talk a great deal.  Justices Sotomayor and Kennedy spoke the most with 184 and 157 words apiece.  U.S. attorney Illana Eisenstein on the other hand spoke 921 words over the course of 16 turns talking.


After one week of oral arguments we may be seeing differences from the Roberts Court of years past and even last year.  As the Justices become more comfortable with their new balance with Justice Scalia no longer on the bench, and become more acclimated to working with an even number, they begin to take on new roles that will likely sustain until a new Justice is confirmed.

On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman

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