AS lawyers stand before the justices of the Supreme Court arguing cases in the new term that started this week, recording devices will tape their words and the questions from the bench - as they have done since 1955. The tapes will be deposited in the National Archives, where scholars, journalists, and other members of the public may hear and copy them.
Few people outside Washington have had convenient access to these tapes, however. The high court has restricted the use of the audio records to ``private research and teaching purposes,'' prohibiting any ``commercial'' distribution.
But this summer, Peter Irons, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, brought out a set of edited tapes and transcripts of the oral arguments in 23 landmark Supreme Court cases. The boxed set of six 90-minute cassettes and accompanying book, titled ``May It Please the Court'' (the words with which lawyers begin their arguments), sells for $75.
The selected cases include Roe v. Wade, the famous abortion case; United States v. Nixon, the contest over the Watergate tapes; and Miranda v. Arizona, the case that required police officers to advise criminal suspects of their constitutional rights.
Professor Irons may now face a legal battle of his own. Before he received permission to copy the tapes, the professor signed the use-re- striction contract. Although none of the justices have commented publicly on the matter, someone at the court seems displeased.
On Aug. 31, the Supreme Court marshal wrote a letter to the National Archives effectively denying any future requests by Irons to copy the tapes. And Toni House, the high court's spokeswoman, says the court is contemplating legal action.
Irons insists that the contract is invalid. He calls it ``prior restraint'' on the publication of public materials that he lawfully obtained, and says it therefore violates his First Amendment right of free speech. Asked about the propriety of his making a profit on the distribution of the public tapes, Irons says the project is the result of two years of work.