A little over six months ago, I wrote a short blog post called “Introducing SCOTUS Map.” In the time since, the project has really grown up, entirely due to Victoria‘s relentless research and updates. SCOTUS Map now displays more than 150 events spanning from last summer to this upcoming one, along with links to registration information, transcripts, audio, and video (where available).
Of late, we’ve added new features as well: there are seven default views to choose from (including “Summer 2014,” “2014 Term,” “Summer 2015,” “Future Events,” and so on), the sidebar can be hidden to enlarge the map, and — as of this week — visitors can now subscribe to daily or weekly email alerts in order to receive updates any time new events are added. (If no new events come through that day or week, don’t worry: we won’t send you an email.)
But believe it or not, SCOTUS Map wasn’t the first Supreme Court project Victoria and I had started. Back in April of last year, three months prior to SCOTUS Map’s launch, we took the first steps towards building the first free, searchable online database of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts.
Currently there are two principal repositories of freely available Supreme Court oral argument transcripts. The first is the recently redesigned Supreme Court web site, which hosts transcripts dating back to the 2000 term. The second, and far more exhaustive, resource is Oyez.org, which holds oral argument transcripts dating back to the 1950s.
The idea for SCOTUS Search had first come up in this context early last year: Victoria was writing pieces on the Supreme Court for my blog and needed to delve into the oral argument proceedings in order to conduct research. While she could usually locate a specific transcript on either Oyez.org or SupremeCourt.gov, each one would have to be searched individually. So if, for example, she was looking for all mentions of “gay marriage” before the Court, she’d have to open every single case that had ever been argued over the past decade or two.
This was clearly an impossible task. Making matters worse, the Supreme Court’s hosted transcripts are stored in PDF format, which — while searchable on an individual basis — are not conducive to automated bulk searching across documents. Oyez boasted a much larger library of transcripts in plain-text, which was far superior from a technical standpoint. However, the site had no full-text transcript search engine, meaning that searching for words or phrases would still require manually opening hundreds or thousands of cases. Additionally, some transcripts were missing and others appeared to cut off partway through.
Starting in 2013, Victoria mentioned to me on numerous occasions her frustrations with the arduous research process. And thus an idea was eventually born last year: if we could somehow consolidate Supreme Court oral argument transcripts across sources and standardize them into a database, we could make the full texts searchable online for free, for the very first time.
Over nine months later, the result of this project is SCOTUSSearch.com. Containing over 1.4 million individual statements spoken in nearly 6,700 Supreme Court oral arguments from the 1950s through the present, the site allows users to search the full text of oral argument transcripts using search options that include filters for speaker and Court term. SCOTUS Search is still in beta, so there are doubtless errors and bugs that we’ll discover over time. In fact, we hope that new visitors to the site will help us out in this regard: if something isn’t working or doesn’t make sense, please let us know so we can fix it.
The recommended way to start is to sign up for a free login. This isn’t required in order to search through transcripts, but there are a lot of features which are only available to registered users: adding notes to cases and individual statements (and sharing them with other users, if you prefer), saving your search history, and marking cases and statements as favorites, for example.
We’re also planning on adding even more substantial tools for registered users only, including the ability to submit transcript revisions and error/typo fixes where applicable. My long-term wish list includes expanding SCOTUS Search beyond the Supreme Court, to incorporate oral arguments from the federal appeals courts (and perhaps international courts). Imagine being able to trace the thought process and rhetoric of Supreme Court justices back to their days on lower appeals courts, or doing the same with attorneys who have argued before multiple courts. In short, the launch of SCOTUS Search is just the beginning of the road, not the end. There’s plenty more to come.
Finally, it cannot be stated clearly enough what a debt this project owes both to the Supreme Court, for hosting over a decade of transcripts, and especially to Oyez, whose tireless transcription and metadata compilation over the years has proved invaluable to many a researcher and journalist, and whose extensive library of transcripts made SCOTUS Search possible.