In historic move, SCOTUS hears oral arguments via telephone conference

Fox News announced that the Supreme Court broke new ground on Monday by conducting oral arguments via telephone conference for the first time in its history. In another first, live audio of the proceedings was broadcast to the public by the C-SPAN cable network, according to The Hill.

The historic changes came as a result of efforts designed to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus, a particular concern in this context given that a number of the justices are elderly and suffer from pre-existing medical conditions.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 87-years-old, and Justice Stephen Breyer turns 82 in August. Meanwhile, Justice Sonia Sotomayor is known to struggle with diabetes, an affliction that required paramedics to be called to her home back in 2018.

Adjustment period required

Judging from the account of the first day of arguments provided by Fox News, the conference call format may take some getting used to, as there was an awkward moment when Sotomayor initially failed to respond when her name was called.

The justices had previously been instructed to mute their phones while listening in, and Sotomayor may have forgotten to have unmute her device before speaking, according to Fox.

The case being heard at the time centered on whether the travel website Booking.com could trademark its name, given that a federal statute from 1946 prohibits the trademarking of generic words.

In this instance, the company contended that the addition of “.com” to its name renders the word is no longer generic and therefore eligible for trademark protection.

Clarence Thomas jumps in

Of particular note were the questions asked by Justice Clarence Thomas, who is famous for only rarely interjecting in back-and-forth exchanges with attorneys when oral arguments are presented at the high court, as The New York Times reported.

“Could Booking acquire an 800 number that’s a vanity number, 1-800-booking for example, that is similar to 1-800-plumbing, which is a registered mark?” Thomas wanted to know.

The justice went on to reference a prior case involving the Goodyear tire company, stating, “In Goodyear, you had a generic term, but you also had an added term, such as company or inc, which any company could use.”

“With Booking here there could only be one domain address dot com, so this would seem to be more analogous to the 1-800 numbers which are also individualized,” Thomas posited.

This won’t be the only headline-grabbing case that the Supreme Court will hear via telephone conference amid the COVID-19 crisis, as it is also set to decide whether President Donald Trump must surrender tax records sought by multiple House committees and the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

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