Just hours after the Supreme Court heard arguments last week in an important abortion case and the day before it considered whether former President Donald J. Trump must face trial on charges that he plotted to subvert the 2020 election, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took a break to share some timely reflections on the role of oral arguments in the court’s work.

He has given the question a lot of thought. Before he joined the court in 2005, he was a leading member of its bar, arguing before the court 39 times. Since then, he has heard more than 1,000 arguments. And he has published a study of what makes for an effective oral presentation.

“Oral argument remains the organizing point for the entire judicial process,” he told an audience at Georgetown University Law Center on Wednesday that included Justices Elena Kagan and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Indeed, he said, oral arguments are when the justices effectively begin their deliberations.

While some of the justices’ questions are clearly earnest inquiries trying to nail down facts or clarify the lawyers’ positions, much of the communication at arguments is actually among the justices.

“Because the members of our court generally do not discuss the cases too much before oral argument,” Chief Justice Roberts said, “there are two sets of conversations taking place at the argument: an obvious one between the advocates and the justices and the usually more subtle one between the justices, because we reveal by the tone and content of our questions clues about how we may be looking at the issues in the case.”

He added, “The discussion at argument frequently shapes not only the result, but also the rationale, as the back-and-forth reveals hidden complexities or concerns about how the holding in the case at hand might affect other decisions.”


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