WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court is about to go where it has never gone before. And the country will get to listen in — live.
Beginning this week, the justices will hear arguments by telephone for the first time since Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention in 1876, opening a two-week remote session that includes disputes over subpoenas for President Donald Trump's financial records. The justices are allowing live audio broadcasts, another novelty for a court that under less-dire circumstances treasures its precedents and traditions.
The 10 phone arguments, a concession to the coronavirus pandemic, will offer a public window into the court's operations at a time when they are far from normal. The justices will be using unfamiliar technology and a new questioning format, while perhaps wondering how it will be perceived by a live audience that could include a tweeting president.
Here's what to expect:
Q: Besides the Trump cases, what else is on the agenda?
A: The cases range from technical to blockbuster. The first one, set for Monday, concerns whether businesses can get federal trademark protection for website names, such as Booking.com, that center on a commonly used word.
The stakes get higher as the session goes along. On Wednesday, the court considers the Trump administration's bid to create a sweeping religious and moral exemption from the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers and universities offer free birth control through their health care plans. That same day, the court weighs the constitutionality of the federal ban on robocalls to mobile phones.
On May 11, the court considers giving religious organizations a bigger exemption from discrimination suits. The next day are the two Trump financial-records cases — one centering on House subpoenas and the other on subpoenas from a New York state grand jury. Finally, the court will hear two cases on May 13 involving the Electoral College, the body that formally selects the 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.
Q: What time are they, and how do I listen?
A: Arguments start each day at 9 a.m. Central time. Each argument lasts an hour, with each side getting 30 minutes. On Monday and Tuesday the court has only one case. On Wednesday of next week and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week, the court is hearing two cases, so the second one will start at 10 a.m. CDT. C-Span plans to air all the arguments live, and other networks are likely to offer at least some parts of the sessions.
Q: Why not video arguments?
A: The Supreme Court moves slowly — glacially, really — and the justices have consistently resisted any camera coverage of arguments, despite pressure from members of Congress and the public. Not much has changed since 2006, when Justice John Roberts said TV coverage might change the tenor of arguments.
Q: Is this all just temporary?
A: That remains to be seen. Whether livestreaming becomes a permanent court feature will depend in part on "how poorly that process goes, either technologically or with people overreacting to the arguments in real-time," said Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who started a blog that tracks the court.