Supreme Court to stick with arguments via telephone, for now

Supreme Court to stick with arguments via telephone, for now
The U.S. Supreme Court will be eschewing the use of its building from the time being. (Source: Gray Media Group)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Wednesday it will start its new term next month the way it ended the last one, with arguments by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic and live audio available to the public.

With 87-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg being treated for cancer and five of her colleagues also age 65 or older, the court is taking no chances that putting the justices in close proximity to each other might make them more vulnerable to catching the virus.

“In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely,” the court said in a statement. The court will decide at a later date how to hold arguments in November and December.

The court held arguments by telephone in May for the first time, and made the audio available live, also a first for the tradition-bound court. The dramatic change in the court’s procedure came after the justices closed the courthouse to the public in March, abandoned their in-person meetings because of the public health crisis and postponed arguments for two months.

All the justices asked questions during 10 arguments in May, even the normally taciturn Clarence Thomas. Ginsburg took part from a hospital room one day when she was being treated for possible infection.

She withheld her latest cancer diagnosis until after the term ended in mid-July, when she said she was undergoing chemotherapy for lesions on her liver, but planned to continue serving on the court.

The announcement of the court’s plans for October came the same day that 50 news organizations, including The Associated Press, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined in a letter to the court calling for live audio of arguments as well as the announcement of opinions, which the court has never done.

The letter said that 50,000 people listened live to the arguments over whether President Donald Trump’s tax returns and other financial documents must be turned over to a New York prosecutors and congressional committees. By the end of the day, roughly 500,000 people had streamed the arguments, the letter said, citing the online SCOTUSblog site.

Civics teachers at the private Indiana high school where Chief Justice John Roberts was a student in the early 1970s separately wrote him about the educational value of allowing people to listen to arguments wherever they are.

Live access to high court arguments “holds inestimable value both as a teaching tool and as a way to instill in students an interest in the values and institutions that animate representative government,” teachers Mike Heffron and Dylan M. LeBlanc of La Lumiere School in LaPorte, Indiana, wrote Roberts. The undated letter was made public by the court transparency group Fix the Court.

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