11:26, May 04 117 0 theguardian.com

2020-05-04 11:26:04
US supreme court livestreams arguments for first time ever

On a morning of firsts for the US supreme court, proceedings could be heard live by the world as the first arguments were made by telephone.

Cases that will be heard in such fashion over the next two weeks include Donald Trump’s effort to shield tax and other financial records.

Whether presidential electors have to cast their electoral college ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state will also be heard.

The changes are a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has made holding courtroom sessions unsafe, especially with six justices aged 65 or older and at risk of getting seriously sick from the virus.

The historic session began at the usual time of 10am ET, when Marshal Pamela Talkin called the court to order and Chief Justice John Roberts announced the day’s case.

“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” Talkin began, dropping the words commanding people “to draw near”.

Arguments, scheduled to last an hour as they would generally in the courtroom, got off to a smooth start. The justices asked roughly two questions apiece, and Roberts occasionally interjected. There was one mild surprise: Clarence Thomas asked questions for the first time in more than a year.

The court plaza, normally bustling on the mornings of arguments, was deserted, as it has been since the building was closed to the public in mid-March. Two months of arguments were postponed before the court decided to hear 10 cases over six days in May.

The experiment could propel the court to routinely livestream its arguments. Or it could just be an extraordinary exception to the court’s sustained opposition to broadening the audience that can hear, if not see, its work live.

The court chose a somewhat obscure case for its first foray into remote arguments, about whether the travel website Booking.com can trademark its name. The lawyers on both sides are well known to the justices and experienced in arguing before the court.

Justice department lawyer Erica Ross, once a clerk to Justice Elena Kagan, was first up, from a department conference room. She would be followed by Lisa Blatt, a one-time government lawyer arguing her 40th supreme court case. Blatt would be at her Washington-area home, she told the Washington Post.

Blatt is known for her colorful writing and speaking style and for her ability to engage in a healthy give-and-take with the justices. She was also a prominent liberal supporter of Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearings.

Each lawyer was to get two uninterrupted minutes to make an opening statement, after which Roberts would kick off the questioning. After that, the justices were to ask questions in order of seniority. Kavanaugh, who joined the court in 2018, would thus go last.

The court sometimes issues opinions at the start of argument sessions, with the justice who wrote for the majority reading a summary of the opinion and, more rarely, a second justice summarizing a dissent.

In another change wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, opinions were being posted online without any statements from justices. The court will next issue opinions on Thursday.

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