Dear Third Circuit, I love you but your audio is atrocious

The Third Circuit, like almost every other federal circuit, posts on its website audio recordings of oral arguments. I’ve been listening to a bunch of them lately. Some of the arguments are terrific, some less so, but every Third Circuit argument recording has one thing in common: the sound quality stinks.

Click on this link and listen to the most recent Third Circuit argument recording. I defy you to tell me what Judge McKee says at the beginning. I challenge you to listen for even five minutes. That constant drone. The echoes. Those mysterious phasers-set-to-stun vibration noises. The gusts of breath. That brain-rattling assault of shuffling paper.

If I had never seen the inside of the Maris courtroom, and someone asked me to describe it based on an argument recording, I would guess that it is a long, basement hallway made of cinder blocks. And I’d guess everyone was talking into a bullhorn, chewing gummy worms, and hiding under a warm sleeping bag.

And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Just compare that Third Circuit audio with any one of these Eleventh Circuit arguments. Seriously. Go on, give it a try. The difference is not subtle. One sounds like it was recorded in 2018–the other,1918.

Here’s a recent argument recording from the Fourth Circuit. From the Seventh Circuit. From the Tenth Circuit. Not bad, right? Could be us.

Sure, maybe this is just a wacky blogger rant. Maybe a circuit court has bigger fish to fry than replacing microphones. This I concede.

But listener fatigue is real. As I recently described on Twitter, I make an effort to listen to great Third Circuit arguments to sharpen my own skills, but over time that’s exactly what it is: an effort. I started to wonder if I was losing my nerdy appreciation for oral advocacy, until it dawned on me that the recordings themselves make listening a chore.

When lawyers get better at oral argument, everyone benefits. One of the easiest and most effective ways to improve is to listen critically to other lawyers’ arguments. More lawyers in the Third Circuit would do that, I am convinced, if the court’s audio were not so execrable.

Sounds like a good idea to me.