Supreme Court Taking COVID-19 Seriously; Moves Hearings To Teleconference

supreme court covid19 response
[Image Credit: UpstateNYer / CC BY-SA]
The Supreme Court of the United States is making big changes to its proceedings as the nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. As businesses and government institutions across the U.S. make decisions about the level of precaution to take, the nation’s highest court is taking great care, while continuing work. On Monday morning, Justices will begin hearing cases by teleconference, instead of in person.

Since March, SCOTUS has moved to postpone hearings, and to protect Justices by allowing them to participate in scheduled conferences by phone, instead of in person. The Supreme Court building was closed to the public, and the staff was encouraged to work remotely to the greatest extent possible. The virus may have more devastating consequences for patients over 55. Currently, only one Justice is under that age — Neil Gorsuch, who will turn 53 this year. The oldest sitting Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has just passed her 86th birthday and has had health issues in the past year.

Last week, the court issued guidance for returning to business by teleconference. Live feeds of the audio will be provided for the first time in the history of SCOTUS, and full official transcripts will be available to the public. In addition, there will be other changes to the proceedings, including one increase in formality: rather than a free-for-all, Justices’ questioning periods will by taken by turns, and in order of seniority.

According to PBS, there’s another change in how the formal proceedings will work: rather than cutting off lawyers mid-sentence when they run out of time, the court will give a polite warning to finish up. Typically for an in-person hearing, attorneys would have a visual cue, a light that comes on as their time nears expiration.

While much of this is unprecedented, SCOTUS noted in March that broadly speaking, the court adapting for public health is not new — postponements and closures of the Court were also enacted in 1918 due to Spanish flu, and for yellow fever in both 1793 and 1798.

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