Northwestern political scientist Jerry Goldman's CD-ROM, The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits, proves it: These cats can swing -- especially if the vote is close.
If you don't believe it, then boot up and hear more than 70 hours of recorded High-Court arguments from 50 significant cases over the previous four decades. Listen in as former Chief Justice Earl Warren offers final thoughts on the importance of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 decision establishing the right of indigent defendants to legal counsel.
Or zip over to 1973's Roe v. Wade and hear former Associate Justices Potter Stewart and Thurgood Marshall grill unflappable attorney Sarah Weddington, rep- resenting Jane Roe and her petition to terminate her pregnancy.
For some laughs (and the justices do have senses of humor, to be sure), eavesdrop as the lawyers for Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine and the Rev. Jerry Falwell are quizzed in 1988 by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor over how far First Amendment rights extend.
A few more mouse clicks produce biographies of the court members. Highlights of the proceedings combined with snippets of voice samples are indispensable aids in immediately homing in on specific points and identifying individual justices.
"Jerry's work is excitingly innovative and makes a huge contribution to the capacities for research on judicial decisionmaking," says Victor G. Rosenblum, Nathaniel Nathanson Professor of Law. "He has opened the door to a detailed analysis of oral arguments."
Goldman set two goals for the CD-ROM, released this year by Northwestern University Press.
"Principally, I want to make the Constitution come alive," he says, "and I want to generate interest in the Supreme Court, this obscure but critical institution."
Since 1955, the High Court has taped all of its oral arguments, but nobody knew about it, Goldman says. "Well, the attorneys did and a handful of scholars, types who would go to the National Archives." But few others were aware, and anyone who wanted access had to agree not to reproduce the recordings. That prohibition fell in 1993, opening the way for Goldman.
For 30 years, he has been a student of the court system in general and the Supreme Court in particular. "But the real turning point for me came at a workshop at Northwestern in 1989 on cutting-edge information technology," Goldman says in his home office, surrounded by three computer monitors.
He remembers one display in which highlighting text from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet transported the viewer to an actual performance of the passage on the screen. "It stuck in my brain," Goldman relates.
"I said, 'I have to learn how to do this.'"
While sitting in Wrigley Field one day, it came to him: an electronic baseball card of a sort that would contain information about the justices, with possible links to their opinions. That thought and further Goldman inspirations led to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Supreme Court, a computer program that he was pursuing "until the Web came along and changed all the rules of the game."
Web technology expanded Goldman's range, allowing him to use thousands of hours of audio material. After receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he created an advanced Web site (oyez.northwestern.edu) that he called the Oyez Project. It offers a much wider variety of features than the more focused CD-ROM, which Goldman describes as "the Oyez Project on steroids."
Two years ago, the Web site branched out to include the Medill School of Journalism, which provides breaking information on the court's current cases.
Goldman, who has heard thousands of hours of court proceedings, has formed decided opinions about the individual justices. "They're cranky, irascible, difficult, persistent, clever," he says. "And some don't say a word."
Former Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, one of the top minds ever to sit on the court, was too bookish for Goldman. "Brilliant, sure, but he was overly academic," he says.
Lewis F. Powell Jr., with his gentle tidewater Virginia cadences, scores points for never getting ruffled or angry.
Among the current justices, Goldman singles out Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "I'm not saying I like Scalia's philosophy, but, as my mother would say, he's a buttinsky. He's always getting in there, interrupting and asking tough questions, but he does it to everybody. Ginsburg also stirs the pot."
When the CD-ROM (which recently received the Best Instructional Software Award from the American Political Science Association's computers and multimedia section) was in process, some tried to persuade Goldman to give the academic work a more sober-sounding title than The Supreme Court's Greatest Hits. "This has to be fun," says the Brooklyn native, whose wry humor and accent betray his origins. "Otherwise, why do it?"
Rosenblum notes admiringly that his colleague's research sheds light on what was unknown information. "This was previously the exclusive province of a few elders in law firms who had engaged in oral arguments," he says. "Jerry made it available to scholars throughout the country."
Goldman sees the CD-ROM as a useful, or at least interesting, addition to any attorney's library -- or anyone else's, for that matter. "The Supreme Court should be understood by every American citizen," he says. "If I've taken some small step toward bringing it a little closer to the American people without sacrificing the quality of its work, that's gratifying to me."
At the beginning of every Supreme Court session, the marshal intones, "God save the United States and this honorable court." Goldman, for one, is confident that, with a little help from the celestial Chief Justice, the hits will just keep on coming.
Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern magazine.