On Thursday, hundreds gathered in Civic Center Plaza (across the street from where I lived when I was in law school) to watch the California Supreme Court hear the oral arguments on the three Proposition 8 cases. Many more watched the arguments in the San Francisco Public Library, and on the Internet where they were broadcast live.
No doubt most of the viewers had never seen a California Supreme Court argument -- or any appellate argument -- before. And no doubt they had the same experience most have who watch an appellate argument -- they were completely lost.
When I and some other attorneys took a class of high schoolers to an appellate argument, we warned them before that if someone has not read the briefs, or at least knows the basics of the case being discussed, the oral arguments will seem completely foreign. That's because the case has already been argued in written briefs; the attorneys and the justices or judges will be thoroughly familiar with the briefs and the record on appeal; and the oral argument is simply designed to clarify and focus the written arguments. Thus, to most observers, watching an appellate argument is like listening to one side of a phone call.