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Observing Oral Arguments
What is an Oral Argument?
Most appeals cases are completed in written form through briefs that each party in a particular case submits to the appellate court. However, in some cases, a court may choose to set an oral argument, which provides an opportunity for appellate judges to question attorneys in person about the material they have included in the written briefs.
Visitor's Guide to Oral Argument
Arguments in most cases last approximately 40 minutes (20 minutes each side), although some cases – including death penalty cases – are given additional time for argument. For most argument sessions, four cases are scheduled with a short break (10 minutes) in between the second and third case. The Court prefers that visitors be seated in the courtroom before oral arguments begin at 9:00 a.m. If visitors arrive during an oral argument, security personnel will determine the best break to escort visitors into the courtroom.
The Court generally convenes the first full week of each month, except during mid-summer, to hear oral arguments on cases before it. Usually all seven justices participate in oral argument. These sessions are open to the public and can be watched live or archived from the court's website.
If you are unable to attend oral arguments, WFSU's Gavel to Gavel Program and The Florida Channel provide streaming arguments as they are being heard. WFSU also provides archived oral arguments from October 1997.
Information about the court:
How the Process Begins
The route to the Florida Supreme Court begins in the local trial courts. When the trial is over, the losing party may appeal the decision to a higher court for review, hoping to change the outcome of the trial. Unless a sentence of death is imposed, all appeals begin in one of five geographically designated District Courts of Appeal. If the losing party wishes to challenge the District Court of Appeal's decision, it asks the Florida Supreme Court to review the case.
Deciding to Review a Case
Jurisdiction at the Florida Supreme Court is limited. Most appeals end at the District Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court has the authority to hear or not hear most of the cases it considers. This is called discretionary jurisdiction.
However, some cases are mandatory. According to the Florida Constitution, the Supreme Court must review all death sentences imposed by trial judges and all decisions by District Courts of Appeal declaring a state statute or provision of the state constitution invalid. Also, the Court, by direction of the Florida Constitution and state law, must review trial court rulings upholding local government bonds and decisions by state utility regulators concerning rates or service.
The most common example of discretionary jurisdiction is seen when the Supreme Court resolves conflicts in rulings by any of the five District Courts of Appeal. Other examples of discretionary jurisdiction include review of DCA decisions that uphold a state law, interpret a provision of the state or federal constitution or certify an issue one of “great public importance.”
Additionally, the Supreme Court also regulates the admission and discipline of Florida lawyers and disciplines judges for misconduct as presented to the Court by the independent Judicial Qualifications Commission. And, according to the Florida Constitution, the Supreme Court can issue “all writs necessary to the complete exercise of its jurisdiction.”
Once the court has accepted the case, it decides whether or not to grant oral argument. Decisions in cases can be made based on the briefs filed in each case and can be done with or without hearing oral argument. The Florida Supreme Court handles many complex and unique legal challenges.
Public Supreme Court proceedings are called "oral arguments," which provide the justices with the opportunity to ask attorneys questions about the case. Usually, oral arguments last 40 minutes. The Marshal of the Florida Supreme Court calls the court to order and the oral arugment begins with the appealing party, called the Petitioner, presenting first. When the Petitioner's time is up, the other side, called the Respondent, responds with their arguments. And finally, if the Petitioner has saved time, the arguments are concluded with the Petitioner's rebuttal.
Immediately after oral arguments conclude, the justices retire to their conference room to discuss the cases just heard. Only the justices attend these conferences. Each case is randomly assigned to one of the justice's to write the majority opinion. The justices vote on each case, often more than once, and the assigned justice writes the majority opinion. Other justices may write dissenting opinions if they do not agree with the majority or the may write a separate concurring opinion if they agree with the majority but wish to make a particular point not covered in the majority opinion.
The completed opinion is then forwarded to the Clerk's office for release. The Clerk also notifies the attorneys of the outcome in the case. By tradition, the Court releases opinions each Thursday at 11 a.m. The opinions are posted to the court's website for the public to read.
The Supreme Court's opinions establish precedent that the Florida appellate and trial courts are required to follow. The Florida Supreme Court's opinions are published in bound volumes called the Southern Reporter.
All devices that chime will be surrendered to the Security desk upon arrival and stored until arguments have concluded. Pictures may NOT be taken during oral argument. When arguments conclude, visitors are welcome to photograph the courtroom.
Once oral argument begins, entering or leaving the courtroom at any time must be done quickly and quietly. Additionally, noises and voices carry in the Rotunda and surrouding vicinity. If you are talking outside the courtroom, please speak quietly when court is in progress.
A video monitor is stationed in the Law Library and the Lawyer's Lounge for real time viewing of oral arguments outside the courtroom.
Please contact the Marshal's Office at 850.488.8845 if you have questions about attending an oral argument.