Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Do Justices Tip Their Hands With Their Questions at Oral Argument in the U.S. Supreme Court?

Timothy R. Johnson, Ryan C. Black, Sarah A. Treul, and Jerry Goldman

Published 2009, Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 29: 241-261.


The U.S. Supreme Court is the most powerful legal institution in the world. As part of its decision-making process the Court holds oral arguments to help gain information about cases it decides. During these oral argument sessions, attorneys representing each side make presentations to the justices, who are free to interrupt and ask questions. Though media accounts, practitioners, and scholars all suggest the justices commonly tip their hands as to which side they favor by the both the quantity and types of questions they ask each side, no systematic empirical inquiry exists to gauge the validity of these intuitions. Utilizing a corpus of nearly 3100 hours of argument transcripts and almost 340,000 unique utterances, we examine whether we can predict case outcomes using oral argument question data. Our results suggest a very strong inverse relationship between the number of questions asked of a side and the likelihood that said side will prevail at the merits stage.

Download the article here. Note: the journal seriously mangled the quality of the figures in the article. A PDF file of images that are actually legible is available here.

Research findings described in Adam Liptak. 2009. "When the Justices Ask Questions, Be Prepared to Lose the Case." New York Times. May 26, 2009 (page A10); and David Stras. 2009. "Academic Round-Up." Supreme Court of the United States Blog (SCOTUS Blog). May 11, 2009.