The Supreme Court on Monday kicks off a historic series of teleconference hearings due to the coronavirus crisis, but uncertainty remains about the justices’ ability to finish this year’s docket and issue final opinions by the end of June as usual.
Convening by telephone, the justices will break a 231-year tradition of in-person hearings. They have scheduled 10 cases over two weeks for the phoned-in arguments.
A live audio stream will be available for the media and 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 usually wrap up each year by the end of June, issuing opinions in all cases argued that term.
They usually do not hear oral arguments in May, which gives them time to finish writing opinions. But with the newly scheduled two weeks of May hearings, court-watchers are unsure what to expect.
Adam Feldman, the founder of the Empirical SCOTUS Blog, said nothing is out of the realm of possibility for the high court’s calendar this year.
“The present situation is something the current justices (and really the Court in general) have never dealt with before and they are figuring it out on the fly,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Times.
Mr. Feldman noted that sometimes the court would issue unsigned opinions during the first week of July in the past. He said the last time a signed opinion came out in early July was during the court’s 1995 term.
“The last time the Court issued signed decisions past the first week in July was in the 1973 term under Chief Justice [Warren] Burger,” he added.
A delay would affect hotly anticipated rulings about Congress’ demands for President Trump’s tax returns and religious objections to the Obamacare mandate that employer health plans pay for contraceptives.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the U.S. and prompted widespread business shutdowns 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 are disputes over congressional authority to subpoena President Trump’s private financial records and a challenge to a subpoena out of New York for Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
Other cases on the May schedule involve the new challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage, whether Electoral College’s 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.
Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, predicts the justices will attempt to finish by the normal June 30 deadline.
“Allowing cases to drag on can create even more uncertainty. In particular, the outcome of the faithless electors can affect the election in November,” Mr. Blackman said.
Still, the term could “run over at least a little bit,” Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group that advocates for constitutionalist judicial nominees to the federal courts.
“It will be difficult to finish the opinions by the end of June, given the important cases that will be heard in May,” he said.