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Because of pandemic, Supreme Court will begin new term with teleconference arguments

Justices of the Supreme Court sit for their official group photo in 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court’s first oral arguments in its new term will be held by remote teleconference because of the continued threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the justices announced Wednesday.

The court is scheduled to hear arguments over five days next month, starting Oct. 5.

“The court building remains open for official business only and closed to the public until further notice,” spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said in a news release. “The court will continue to closely monitor public health guidance in determining plans for the November and December argument sessions.”

Supreme Court begins experiment with teleconference arguments

The nine justices have not met in person for oral arguments since March 4. The court postponed oral arguments later that month and in April, and it held remote hearings in May. Those arguments lacked the grandeur of the classic courtroom — the justices called in, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once participated from a hospital room — but were for the first time immediately available to the public, which could listen in real time.

Ginsburg is 87 and Justice Stephen G. Breyer just turned 82; four others are 65 or older and thus considered at special risk for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The court’s reluctance to set rules beyond its opening two-week set of hearings indicates justices are hopeful about returning to in-person arguments. But even when that happens, groups are asking the justices not to abandon live audio of their proceedings, and perhaps to expand it.

“The public’s manifest interest in the court’s work has been unmistakable,” said a letter to the justices from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It was joined by 50 news organizations, including The Washington Post.

“During the live telephonic oral arguments in May, journalists were able to report to their audiences about court sessions while they were ongoing, giving many Americans their first contemporaneous glimpse into how the court operates,” the letter said. “This access promotes an even more informed citizenry, particularly when thousands or tens of thousands of people can listen to a live argument, compared to the 50 to 100 members of the public who are able to attend an argument in person.”

The transparency group Fix the Court also released a letter to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. from civics teachers at his prep school asking that the experiment in audio webcasts be extended.

The May hearings “helped countless students across the country better understand and engage with the critical issues before the court,” wrote teachers at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind.