Supreme Court Bows to Crisis With Arguments Via Telephone

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court for the first time will hear arguments by telephone and allow live audio broadcasts, bowing to the coronavirus outbreak by announcing a special May session including rescheduled clashes over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records.

It’s an extraordinary step for the tradition-bound court, whose arguments are normally steeped in ritual and devoid of all but the most basic technology. But with the pandemic making arguments in the courtroom impractical, the justices said Monday they would adopt procedures that until now have been anathema to them.

The court said the justices and lawyers will all participate remotely. The media will receive a live audio feed for the 10 cases and will be permitted to air the feeds live, according to Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. That will be a major change for a court that normally doesn’t release the audio from its sessions until days later.

Arguments will run from May 4 to May 13, with the exact date to be set for each case after consultation with the lawyers involved.

The telephone arguments will include a fight over the Electoral College, the body that formally selects next president. At issue is whether states can stop “faithless electors” who try to cast a vote for someone other than the candidate who won their state’s balloting. The court will also be considering a pair of high-profile religious-rights disputes.

Trump Subpoena Cases

Trump is challenging subpoenas from Congress and a New York grand jury in cases that raise sweeping questions about investigations into alleged misconduct by the president. Trump is seeking to sharply limit Congress’s powers and give the president immunity from state criminal probes while in office.

The court had postponed 20 arguments that were scheduled to be heard in March and April. The nine justices have continued to issue opinions and orders and hold their scheduled private conferences, though those sessions are happening by phone instead of in person.

One case not on the list of May arguments is a multibillion-dollar copyright fight between Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Oracle Corp. The court is now likely to hear that case when the new term starts in October.

Two of the court’s nine members are in their 80s -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, and Justice Stephen Breyer, 81. Four others are 65 or older: Justice Clarence Thomas, 71; Justice Samuel Alito, 70; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 65; and Chief Justice John Roberts, 65. Elderly people are at increased risk of dying should they contract the coronavirus, and Sotomayor’s diabetes puts her at elevated risk as well.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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