i.e. re: the Prop 8 and DOMA cases scheduled for this week. Obviously these aren't regular trials
Do arguments last only one day, or can they go on for several days?
Do witnesses ever testify, or is it just the two lawyers arguing before the justices? Basically is it just opening arguments and closing arguments, and the justices ask questions in between?
They are not like any other trial or anything you see on TV.
The way it works once the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case is:
1) The parties to the case submit briefs that are written arguments of why the court should rule in their favor
2) The Court's justices (or more likely their law clerks assisting the justices) read the briefs to get a sense of the positions of the parties
3) Oral arguments are held. In a typical case these are limited to about 30 minutes for each side. Sometimes the Court will extend it longer if it's a really complicated or important issue with several parts and many parties to it (like Obamacare ran over 3 days last year because it was actually multiple cases and this gay marriage issue is multiple cases (a challenge to Prop 8 is one, a challenge to DOMA the other) so will run two days).
4) Supreme Court Conference meets on Friday after the oral argument. The justices will vote on the cases heard that week to determine where the majority stands and figure out which justices will be writing the opinion for the majority (or concurring/dissenting opinions if there are any)
5) Justices take several weeks working with law clerks to write opinions and they are released some weeks or even months later on a designated day that the Court is releasing opinions.
The Court adjourns for the summer in June and we will likely get this opinion as one of the last opinions of this term because of how controversial it will be. For example, the Obamacare arguments happened in the last week of March last year and the Court's opinions were released on the last day of the Supreme Court term on June 28, 2012.
Oh and witnesses do not testify at these things.
Because the time is so limited there's no way for the lawyers to argue their entire cases but instead they will start to make their oral argument then inevitably they get interrupted by judges who have particular questions based on the written briefs they have presented.
Sometimes the judges will ask questions or make comments not even relevant to the briefs just because they like to hear themselves talk and sort of argue their points from the bench to try to sway the other justices or to make political points for public consumption.
For instance, during the recent challenge to the Voting Rights Act oral arguments, Justice Scalia used that case as an opportunity to bitch about "racial entitlements" that the Voting Rights Act provides by looking out for black people at the ballot box and Justice Roberts accused Massachusetts of being more racist than Mississippi because of incorrect statistics he dug up to claim that Massachusetts had lower black voter participation than Mississippi did.
R1/R2 - I have to say this is the most informational, useful and non-aggressive post I have ever seen on this board.
Do you think the Justices actually do much, or after 15 years on the bench, they just leave everything to the clerks, show up for the arguments, and basically take it easy? Because hearing how the system works, there isn't much for them to actually 'do'
Use their brains and THINK is what they should do.
What has been said here applies to all appellate courts, really. In an appeals court, briefs(legal arguments) are filed stating legal reasons why lower court is wrong. The lower court may be a trial court or appeals court. An appeals courts relies only on the evidence presented to the lower court(record on appeal); no new evidence is taken. Only in the trail court, usually the original court, is new evidence of any kind presented. There may or may not be oral argument in front of the court and many appeals are decided solely on the record on appeal and briefs.
I think it depends on the justice r4 and it depends on the case.
If it's something a justice really cares about, I think they'll play a bigger role in writing and shaping their opinions or preparing questions for oral argument and the debate among the justices in conference after oral argument, whereas if it's a run-of-the-mill case without much controversy then a justice is more willing to hand that off to the law clerks.
There's also the thing where certain justices are more into being celebrities of the legal profession constantly making appearances and giving speeches at law schools (Scalia and Breyer) whereas others are more focused on the work of the court exclusively.
The Supreme Court hears appeals. It does not try cases. Evidence is presented at trials. When trial judgments are appealed, the appellate court reviews the process for any illegalities. Generally (there are some exceptions, not likely applicable to Prop 8 and DOMA) an appellate court reviews findings of law and reverses those which it finds erroneous; it's ability to resolve factual disputes (not to be confused with how the law should have been applied to those factual findings), the province of the trial court, is very limited.
Appellate lawyers submit briefs to the appeals court arguing for the judgment below to be affirmed, reversed and or modified.
When the case is heard by the court, the lawyers orally argue the points of their briefs and answer questions directed to them by the panel of judges. Argument can take more than a day but often does not.
What may take a long time is for the Supreme Court to issue its decision.