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The Loudest Voice at the Supreme Court: The Solicitor General’s Dominance of Amicus Oral Argument

Posted by on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 in Articles, Volume 74, Volume 74, Number 3.

Darcy Covert & Annie J. Wang | 74 Vand. L. Rev. 681 (2021) |

The Solicitor General (“SG”) is often called the “Tenth Justice,” a title that captures his unique relationship with the Supreme Court and his independence from the executive branch. No phenomenon better reflects this relationship than the Court’s practice of permitting amici to participate in oral argument. Although amicus oral argument is nominally available to all litigants, the modern Court grants this privilege almost exclusively to the SG. Scholars and Court watchers have long argued that this practice is justified because the SG uses it to pursue the rule of law and an objective sense of “justice.”

This Article challenges that account. The SG’s dominance of amicus oral argument is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the early 1900s, the SG requested amicus oral argument almost exclusively to defend federal statutes or federal agency action. During this time, the Court granted all his amicus oral argument requests. But, over time, SGs increasingly entered political cases with only tenuous connections to the federal government. During the late 1980s, the Court became skeptical of the SG’s political independence; in response, it denied seventeen percent of his amicus oral argument motions, and individual Justices criticized him in internal memoranda. Thirty years later, the Court permits the SG to argue as an amicus in almost any case he wants, even though he increasingly weighs in on politically charged cases with de minimis implications for the federal government.

This new equilibrium has profound consequences. By permitting the SG to be heard any time he asks, the Court systematically biases the perspectives that it hears. This bias undermines due process principles and the adversarial system, and it ignores the Court’s own history and rules. We offer a proposal for reform.

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Darcy Covert and Annie J. Wang