WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell's Tidewater Virginia drawl could make the word "court" sound as if it had two syllables. And Justice Clarence Thomas, though he doesn't talk much, speaks in a deep baritone.
The voices of those justices and 30 others, as well as thousands of lawyers who have argued before the court, are now part of a massive Internet archive assembled by the Chicago-based Oyez Project. The group has spent more than a decade putting together recordings going back to 1955, when an audio recorder was first installed at the court.
Now, the group is finishing work that makes the archive even more accessible, linking the audio to simultaneously scrolling transcripts that also identify the justices and arguing lawyers as they speak. In all, almost 14,000 hours of audio are available for free. It would take more than a year and a half of continuous listening to hear everything.
"The only way to be authoritative is to say we have it all," said Jerry Goldman, the director of the project, which is based at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Goldman said the audio contains gems ranging from the sound of one justice forming a spit wad during the days when chewing tobacco in court was still acceptable to the time an arguing lawyer used the F-bomb, a word key to a 1971 case involving freedom of speech.
By this fall visitors to the project's website will be able to search all the argument transcripts, so someone could, Goldman says, search for and then listen to every time the phrase "strict scrutiny" has been used or every time someone said "broccoli" during last year's health care law debate.
The court's aural history has never been so accessible. Until fairly recently, the Supreme Court waited months before releasing the audio of proceedings. Now, oral argument recordings are released at the end of every week, but the court's own website only provides audio from 2010 forward.