Oral Arguments

by | Jun 19, 2017

Have you ever wondered what “Oral Arguments” are? Scroll down to the bottom of this post for an audio excerpt!

In an appeal, both parties submit a series of written briefs to the appellate court, in which they argue the merits of their case and ask the court to either affirm or reverse the decision of the lower court. Usually, the appellate judges read these briefs and decide who “wins” based on the information provided in the briefs.

Sometimes, however, the appellate judges want to hear oral arguments from the attorneys on both sides before making their decision. If a case is selected for oral argument, the attorneys argue in court in front of a panel of (usually) three randomly selected judges. Each side gets a very limited amount of time to argue their case, usually about 20 or 30 minutes. The attorney for the “petitioner” (the party who filed the appeal) argues first, and then the “respondent” (the party responding to the appeal) argues. The petitioner can make a final concluding argument after the respondent has finished, if she chooses to reserve time for rebuttal.

Essentially, each side will argue in a straightforward fashion the reasons why the court should rule in their favor. Arguments need to be very clear and succinct. A successful oral argument will not attempt to reiterate every single argument from the written brief; attorneys should pick the strongest arguments and focus on those. Otherwise, the weaker reasons can distract or detract from the better, stronger arguments.

Oral arguments are an opportunity to have a formal “conversation” with the judges in order to persuade them that your interpretation of the law is the correct interpretation. Once an attorney begins their argument, the judges may interrupt to ask any questions they have. Judges might want to clarify a point of law or fact, or ask a question about an entirely different point or concern.

If a case is selected for oral argument, it usually means the case presents either an interesting question of law, or the case involves a complex set of facts. For the appealing party, it’s also a good sign, because it means their case at minimum is not a “slam dunk” loser.

Oral arguments are rare but exciting. Mark Hayes has participated in oral arguments at the Supreme Court of North Carolina, the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. As an experienced advocate and orator, Mr. Hayes’ maintains a working relationship with the professors at his alma mater, UNC Law, where he has previously taught as an adjunct professor.

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Hayes’ oral argument in front of the Fourth Circuit, in Woods v. City of a Greensboro, a multimillion dollar lawsuit that involved racial discrimination. Mr. Hayes, arguing on behalf of the plaintiff, is asked to explain a comparison he made earlier in the argument.

Skip to content