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In unprecedented day at U.S. Supreme Court, justices hear arguments by phone

Monday marked a Supreme Court argument unlike any other -- not because of the legal issues at stake, but because of the logistics made necessary by the pandemic. The session took place over the telephone and was broadcast live, representing a major shift for a body steeped in tradition that has previously expressed reservations about broader access to proceedings. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a Supreme Court argument unlike any other held before, not for the legal issues at stake, but for the logistics of holding proceedings during a pandemic over the telephone and broadcasting live as it happened.

    Yamiche Alcindor begins there.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, the Supreme Court was in session, but you could hardly tell by the relative quiet outside the courthouse.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    We'll hear argument this morning.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Instead, it was the voice of Chief Justice John Roberts that kicked off today's oral arguments over the phone.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    Case 19-46, United States Patent and Trademark Office versus Booking.com.

    Ms. Ross?

  • Woman:

    Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court:.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's a first for the Supreme Court. Justices normally hear arguments and in person.

    The socially distanced justices, four of them in their 70s and 80s, took turns questioning attorneys over the phone. The arguments they heard today had been rescheduled because of the pandemic.

    And there were the occasional glitches. For a few seconds, bad audio rendered Justice Stephen Breyer hard to hear:

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    Thank you, counsel.

    Justice Breyer?

  • Justice Stephen Breyer:

    Thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But any issues were minor in an argument that also included questions from Justice Clarence Thomas.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    Thank you, counsel.

    Justice Thomas?

  • Justice Clarence Thomas:

    Yes, Ms. Ross, a couple of questions.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It was just his third time posing questions at argument over at least a decade.

    Today's arguments were in a trademark case involving the travel Web site Booking.com. Also this month, cases about religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's birth control coverage mandate, disputes over subpoenas for President Trump's financial records, and the issue of faithless electors in presidential elections.

    Until now, for the public, following an argument live has meant having to get a seat inside the courtroom, where electronics are banned.

    For closely watched cases, long lines for seats are the norm. But in another first, the broader public could listen to today's arguments live.

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal":

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The normal window into the operation of the court, especially during oral arguments, is really through the reporters who cover the court, the stories they write.

    There are several courtroom artists who draw pictures of the action. The audio of the argument is posted on the court's Web site, but not until the Friday of the week in which a particular case was argued.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the few times the court has done same-day audio releases, they were for arguments in the most extraordinary of cases.

    Some lower federal courts allow news cameras in for some proceedings or provide audio or video streams themselves. But the Supreme Court's operations have a history of being slow to keep up with technology.

    For example, its opinions were printed using hot metal typesetting, until the 1980s, when it moved to electronic printing. Over the years, some justices have let it be known they have doubts about broader media access to arguments.

    Almost a quarter-century ago, a House panel questioned now retired Justices Anthony Kennedy and David Souter about letting news cameras in.

  • Former Justice David Souter:

    I can tell you that the day you see a camera coming to our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    As recently as last year, Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan expressed their own concerns, also before a House panel.

  • Justice Samuel Alito:

    Allowing the arguments to be televised would undermine their value to us as a step in decision-making process. I think lawyers would find it irresistible to try to put in a little sound bite, in the hope of being that evening on CNN or FOX or MSNBC or one of the broadcast networks.

  • Justice Elena Kagan:

    I think we would filter ourselves in ways that would be unfortunate, in other words, the first time you see something on the evening news, which, taken out of context, suggest something that you never meant to suggest, suggests that you have an opinion on some issue that you, if fact, don't have.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But now that the court has adjusted to the times, at least for these first two weeks in May, will audio livestreaming stick around, even after the pandemic has passed?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can listen to the Supreme Court oral arguments yourself on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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