“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”
When the marshal steps forward tomorrow to open the Supreme Court’s fall term, these are the very first words he will say. But where do they come from? And what exactly do they mean?
“Oyez” is actually a French word—Law French, to be precise. It dates back to the years following the Norman Conquest. Literally, it means “Hear ye!” It was used by criers in the Middle Ages when calling for attention so they could make a public proclamation. It was also adopted by courts, first in England and then in America, as a formal way to open judicial proceedings.
You might be wondering: Okay, that’s fine, but why are we still borrowing from a language that hasn’t been used for hundreds of years? Good question. I can think of two reasons.
The first reason is ceremony. Important events are often accompanied by a ceremony, setting them apart from the ordinary, workaday events in our lives. Weddings are a good example. When my daughter was married a few months ago, the formality of the wedding ceremony reminded us it was an important, life-changing event. Ceremony plays a part in court proceedings too. The spacious courtroom, the robes worn by the judges, the crowd rising as the judges enter and, yes, even the words spoken by the marshal—all of them are meant to remind us that the Supreme Court’s proceedings have important legal significance.
The second reason is continuity. Tradition forms an important connection with the past. Hearing the marshal cry “Oyez!” reminds us that even though the judges may change over time, the Supreme Court, as an institution, traces its roots back to West Virginia’s statehood in 1863. More than that, the Supreme Court is part of a judicial heritage that’s hundreds of years old. “Oyez” is a simple, but highly effective way to emphasize that heritage.
We encourage you to follow the Supreme Court’s work throughout its fall term. And, of course, we invite you to visit our site regularly as we provide coverage of cases affecting civil litigation and practice.