The Supreme Court will break with tradition next month by hearing nearly a dozen cases via teleconference — a precedent-setting move, necessitated by COVID-19, that finally opens proceedings to 21st-century technology.
A live audio stream will be available for the media, according to a statement released Monday from the court’s Public Information Office. The press will be able to distribute the audio to the public in real time.
The change will give the public a first-ever peek into oral arguments at the high court without attending the proceedings in-person. The court decided to make the move after it postponed hearing legal challenges per social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The justices had canceled 20 arguments in March and April.
Ten cases have been rescheduled for hearings via teleconference beginning May 4, including several involving legal battles over access to President Trump’s bank records, business files and tax returns.
Since mid-March, the justices have been conferencing among themselves remotely and releasing opinions on the internet.
Postponed court hearings are quite rare.
The court postponed arguments in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. A court spokesperson also noted calendars at the court were changed in 1793 and 1798 over yellow fever.
The high court also heard arguments outside of the Supreme Court building in October 2001, when there was an anthrax scare. The hearings took place at the federal courthouse about half a mile from the Supreme Court building.
Advocates have been pushing for years for the justices to allow cameras in proceedings to provide live video of the court in action. Several lawmakers have continuously pushed legislation to televise the oral arguments, demanding open government reforms.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an advocacy group pushing for more transparency at the Supreme Court, said it took a global pandemic for the increased openness to occur next month.
He said the new teleconferencing plan shows the high court “is not immune to public pressure” to change with the times.
“The court will have no excuse come next term to maintain a live audio policy for every argument, and we’ll do our part to make sure that live video is not too far behind,” he said.
His organization has been pushing for arguments at the high court to be livestreamed even before the pandemic halted proceedings. Some federal circuit courts have livestreamed audio and video of arguments in the past.
Though the Supreme Court does not traditionally stream live video or audio of its arguments, it does upload audio of each case hearing at the end of the week. Transcripts are also posted near the end of each day after oral arguments.
In an appearance in 2017, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested cameras in the courtroom could lead to more of a performance during the probing of lawyers rather than important legal questions getting explored.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the U.S. and prompted widespread business shutdown in early March, Supreme Court staff have worked remotely to limit the number of people in the building, which remains closed to the public.
The most eye-catching cases scheduled for telehearings next month are disputes over congressional authority to subpoena Mr. Trump’s private financial records and a challenge of a subpoena out of New York for Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
Other cases scheduled for May involve a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage, whether presidential electors have to cast their vote for the candidate who won their state, and a case involving an employment discrimination charge against a religious employer.
The other 10 arguments that had been postponed will be heard in the fall during the next session which begins in October. The justices usually wrap up each year by the end of June, issuing opinions in all cases that had been argued that term.
• This article is based in part on wire reports.