News & Politics

Supreme Court Adapts to Coronavirus and Goes Electronic to Resume Oral Arguments in Key Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court building, Wikimedia Commons, Daderot.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear oral arguments in key cases via teleconference in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. The Court will make audio recordings available to the media.

“The Court will hear oral arguments by telephone conference on May 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13 in a limited number of previously postponed cases,” the Supreme Court said in a statement. “In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely. The Court anticipates providing a live audio feed of these arguments to news media. Details will be shared as they become available.”

The press release listed ten cases to be heard in May, including the case concerning President Trump’s tax and financial records and the latest version of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate battle with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The Supreme Court has never live-streamed oral arguments and only rarely has it made the audio available on the same day, the Associated Press reported. Most federal appeals courts have already allowed arguments by phone, although some cases have been postponed or decided without arguments.

The Court did not indicate when it might decide the cases it will hear in May. While the Court usually winds up its work by the end of June and returns for the new session on the first Monday in October, this delay may derail that schedule. After the ten cases to be argued in May, the Supreme Court will argue ten more cases in the fall, Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor who will argue one of the cases, told the AP.

The justices last met in public on March 9, although they have held private teleconferences since then. The Supreme Court has decided seven cases in the past month.

Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said that all justices remain healthy. Six of the nine are 65 and older, and so face a higher risk of getting sick from the coronavirus. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, and Stephen Breyer, 81, are the oldest members of the Court.

Justices have only heard oral arguments outside the 85-year-old court building once before, when anthrax was detected in the court mailroom in October 2001. During that crisis, justices heard oral arguments in the federal courthouse about a half-mile from the building.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, arguments were postponed for a month. At the time, the Court still met inside the U.S. Capitol building. Smallpox outbreaks in the late 1700s also postponed Court business.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.