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Nov 09 2013

Oral arguments in Greece v. Galloway

You can listen to a recording of the oral arguments in the case of Greece v. Galloway about the role of prayer at official government functions. Listening to the arguments is a different experience from reading the transcript because you can pick up nuances such as asides, sarcasm, and jokes.

This site is done well in that they have a rolling transcript alongside the sound, along with a photo of the speaker. That helps because there are so many people involved and often interruptions and cross talk, so just sound would be hard to follow.

Thomas G. Hungar, the lawyer for the city and Ian H. Gershengorn for the Obama administration had a total of 30 minutes to make the case for allowing the prayer practice while Douglas Laycock appeared for the two women challenging it.

In listening to the arguments, I found chief justice Roberts and justice Scalia asked the most penetrating questions of Hungar, especially on why tradition and history practice should validate a practice, which was one of the key pieces of reasoning on which the 1983 March v. Chambers case was decided.

It also appeared that Stephen Breyer hinted (beginning at around the 16:45 minute mark) that he was a nonbeliever by joking that he would privately answer Scalia’s questions about what would be the equivalent of prayer for someone who is not religious, that was accompanied by laughter in the court.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Frank

    Thanks for posting this–very well done.

    Was that laughter at the absurdity of a nonreligious person sitting on the Court or nervous laughter that a nonreligious person might actually be sitting on the Court? The straight audio suggests the former, but the phrasing–as though Justices Breyer and Scalia have already discussed this–suggests the latter.

    Also, I found the Chief Justice’s repeated insertion of nonbelievers/atheists into the argument surprising. To my ear, he didn’t mention them out of malice, but as a group that should be considered in this sort of case.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    I thought the laughter was out of surprise that Breyer, who is always formally identified as Jewish, might be ‘outing’ himself as a nonbeliever in the middle of oral arguments.

    I too found Roberts’s mention of atheists to be genuinely out of concern about how to accommodate them and not as a punch line. Maybe the presence of a fellow justice as nonbeliever (assuming that is true of Breyer) has made them more sensitive to the fact that we are really here. Statistics don’t have the same impact.

  3. 3
    Frank

    I hadn’t considered that the Chief Justice’s questions were influenced by the suggestion that he might be serving on the Court with an atheist. But it is very plausible.

    It’s rather like Senator Portman’s conversion to favoring LGBT rights after his son came out as gay. When one finds out that someone close to one is a member of (name the minority out-group), one realizes that “they”‘ are not so bad after all.

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