WASHINGTON — You must be a lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. While that has long been the practice, it wasn’t an official requirement until Monday, when the Supreme Court revised its 80-page rule book for the first time since 2010.
The update covers items such as filing deadlines but also adds Rule 28.8, which requires anyone arguing before the court to be a lawyer. The high court says the new rule simply codifies a ‘‘long-standing practice of the court.’’
A non-lawyer hasn’t argued before the justices in more than three decades, though not for a lack of trying. A magazine publisher, entrepreneur, and paralegal-in-training asked but were turned down, the paralegal-in-training in the past year.
New York resident Samuel H. Sloan, now 68, was the last non-lawyer to do it when he represented himself in 1978 in a lawsuit involving stock trading. Sloan says he interviewed several lawyers who volunteered to represent him for free, just for the prestige of appearing before the court, but he decided to handle the job himself.
‘‘It wasn’t on an ego thing or anything like that,’’ he said recently. ‘‘I wanted to win the case. I was convinced I couldn’t win the case in any other way but to argue my own case.’’
He won 9-0.
Oral argument is a relatively small part of a case, although the justices say it can, on rare occasion, be critical to the outcome. More important is the written argument that both sides and other interested parties file. The justices agreed to hear two cases this past term filed by non-lawyers, but that is extremely unusual, and only one of the two men wanted to argue himself.
Actual argument by non-lawyers is even rarer, and even Supreme Court scholars have a difficult time coming up with other examples beyond Sloan. But it has happened. In 1948, a Chicago man named Harrison Parker appeared before the court to argue that he was improperly convicted of contempt of court on two different occasions. One newspaper report from the time suggests Parker did fine, though it was clear he was an amateur.
In 1982, Edward Lawson of California petitioned to argue for himself in a case where he challenged a law that allowed police to stop people and ask them to identify themselves.
The court turned down the request from the 36-year-old entrepreneur and consultant who was the subject of frequent police stops.
A year later, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt fired his lawyer in a libel case before the court and asked to handle arguments himself. Flynt was also told ‘‘no,’’ and the court assigned Chicago lawyer Stephen M. Shapiro to argue his position. Flynt came to the argument but was escorted out when he started yelling obscenities.