The Oyez Project: U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia Database
Established by Jerry Goldman, maintained by Tony Becker, Northwestern University.
Visited February 11, 2001.
The Oyez Project is primarily an archive of material related to the United States Supreme Court, its justices, and its decisions. In order to take full advantage of its offerings, one needs to have both RealPlayer and QuickTime loaded, the latter for the virtual tour of the Court and the former to hear oral arguments.
There are five major categories—“Cases,” "Justices,“ ”Virtual Tour of the Court,“ "About Oyez,” and “Greatest Hits” (this last a multimedia CD)—and it is relatively easy to navigate around the site. The results of my three visits, however, were a little disappointing in some instances.
The “Cases” category, which I imagine would be a major draw for most users, has several subfields—“On This Date in Supreme Court History,” "Search by Title,“ "Search by Citation,” “Search by Subjects,” and “Search Oyez Database for a Specific Date.” Using the citation category is relatively straightforward, while in the title search one has a choice of “all” of these words or “any” of these words. Once Oyez has identified the case, it ships you into FindLaw, and in the individual cases there are hotlinks to all cited cases. In addition, where tapes of the oral arguments are available, they can be played on a RealPlayer program, and one can also get the transcripts of the oral argument, either with or without the sound track.
I listened to several cases out of the 643 that Oyez has available going back to the 1950s. In Bush v. Gore (2000), the sound was clear, and the transcript tracked the sound quite closely. When I skipped ahead, the written and oral materials continued to track. In Roe v. Wade (1973), on the other hand, the quality of the sound was scratchy, not a surprise given the technology of the time, but there was a clear disconnect between sound and transcript. In a third case, there was no transcript available with the sound. This could be a useful feature in class, especially when discussing how good—or bad—lawyering can affect a case. It also sheds much light on the justices and their styles, from the very polite David Souter and Stephen Breyer to the aggressive Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There are also abstracts of about a thousand cases, but in the several cases I looked at one could find only a bare-bones recital of facts and holdings and no indications of the importance of each case in its own right or the impact it may have had on the development of the Court’s jurisprudence. Moreover, the abstract links are not well marked, and I found them only after someone familiar with the site showed me how. Another and more useful feature, though, is a grouping of cases by subject, such as freedom of contract, and under each case there is the key question raised by the case.
The material on the justices is less than adequate. One can get all sorts of factual items, such as birth and death dates, dates on the Court, the previous and next appointments, whose seat the justice took and who was his successor, etc. For sitting justices one also gets information on family, education/work/legal experience, and publications. But the biographical sketches are bare-bones. I looked up Louis Brandeis and there was not a mention of any case other than Erie (1938), no references to any published works about him, or anything that might be useful to high school or college students wanting to work up material for further research on a paper.
All in all, a useful site, easy to navigate, but with much work to do before it becomes a site of first choice. I should add that although I have a 56K modem, I found the materials very slow to load, a condition that may vary by user and mode of access. I should also add that, while I successfully located most of the cases I sought, the site could not find the famous World War II treason case Ex parte Quirin (1942), either by name or by cite (317 U.S. 1), which I found rather strange.
Melvin I. Urofsky
Virginia Commonwealth University