SCOTUS to hear arguments via conference call amid COVID-19 pandemic

In an unprecedented move, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing oral arguments via telephone conference call amid the coronavirus pandemic, The New York Times reported.

In another first, members of the public will be able to listen to a live broadcast of the court’s proceedings on cable television, according to the Times.

The decision comes as concerns about stopping the spread of COVID-19 forced the high court to cancel in-person arguments. Many of those on the bench are elderly and thus at high risk of experiencing serious complications should they contract the disease.

“No substitute for the real thing.”

“It’s a remarkable development and completely unexpected,” the Times quoted Bruce Collins as saying. Collins serves as general counsel for C-SPAN, the network that will be broadcasting the arguments.

Not everyone is excited about conducting a case via telephone conference, however. Among them is attorney Kannon K. Shanmugam, who remarked that it’s “better than nothing, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.”

“It’s hard to have the back-and-forth that you have in open court,” Shanmugam added. “And it’s that much harder without videoconferencing, where you can at least see each other.”

If his past comments are anything to go by, Chief Justice John Roberts himself may very well agree with that assessment. “Quite often the judges are debating among themselves and just using the lawyers as a backboard,” the Times quoted Roberts as telling his students at Columbia Law School over a decade ago.

Adjustments required

Given the new format, such an approach would appear to have limited usefulness. What’s more, Supreme Court clerk Scott Harris has reportedly told attorneys scheduled to argue before the court that they may need to adjust their speaking styles, according to the Times.

“Please be concise and responsive to each question so that each justice will have adequate time for questioning,” he informed the lawyers.

However, while Americans will be able to hear live audio of the proceedings, there will be no visual element available. What’s more, it doesn’t appear as though there will be cameras capturing the action at the nation’s highest court any time soon.

In October of last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to Chief Justice Roberts asking that journalists be allowed to record upcoming cases, but the request was quickly denied.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has given her own reasons for the continued exclusion of cameras from the court, saying in 2013, “I don’t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing.”

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