Supreme Court Returns With Skeletal Audience, Piped-in Questions
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in person for the first time in 19 months, kicking off a new term as never before, in a quarter-filled courtroom with piped-in questions from a quarantining justice.
In a session that mixed the reassuringly familiar with the jarringly unprecedented, the justices took up a pair of low-profile cases in the courtroom they last used for arguments in March 2020, before the pandemic forced them to hold arguments by telephone.
The session was full of firsts, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s courtroom debut and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s participation from home after he tested positive for Covid on Thursday. It also featured the unusual, with the first question in each argument segment coming from Clarence Thomas, the justice who once went 10 years without speaking during arguments but who became more active once the court began telephone sessions.
The proceedings took place before an audience of about 75 people, mostly mask-wearing reporters and law clerks in designated, well-spaced seats in the section of the courtroom normally reserved for the public. Each party was allowed just two lawyers in the courtroom, positioned farther away from the justices than usual. The session was otherwise closed to the public.
Chief Justice John Roberts made no mention of the unusual circumstances as he called the first case, other than to note that Kavanaugh was participating remotely.
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Barrett had taken part in arguments only by phone since being sworn in almost a year ago. With her husband in the section reserved for special guests, she sat in the customary seat for the junior justice at the far right-hand side of the winged mahogany bench from the audience’s perspective.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone member of the court who wore a mask. All nine justices are fully vaccinated and are tested on a regular basis, the court has said. Everyone else in the courtroom wore a mask, including the lawyers when they weren’t making their arguments.
The court hadn’t heard arguments in person since March 4, 2020, a week before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. The court soon postponed its next set of arguments and eventually began hearing cases by telephone.
The court is beginning a contentious term that will include blockbuster showdowns over abortion and gun rights. Barrett’s confirmation to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave the court a 6-3 conservative majority.
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